Twins' charmed season: doormats to runaways Free-agent gambles are all winners

October 01, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

MINNEAPOLIS -- It is a purist's nightmare. The Minnesota Twins, the team with the little toy stadium and the championship-caliber heart, are going to the American League playoffs again.

You remember the Twins of 1987? Team Hearing Loss. The fans that made ear plugs a fashion statement. The homer hankies. The stadium that gave everyone an edifice complex. The world champions who didn't win a World Series game outside of the Metrodome.

They'rrre baaaack.

The Twins clinched the AL West title on Sunday to become the first team to finish in last place one year and first place the next. They went 74-88 in 1990 and weren't expected to do much better this season, but the addition of veteran free agents Jack Morris and Chili Davis and the emergence of young pitchers Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani helped turn the toughest division race in the majors into a cakewalk.

"We honestly believed when we came out of spring training that we were an improved baseball team," Twins general manager Andy MacPhail said. "We thought there was the possibility that three or fourteams would be bunched at the top right down to the final week of the season, and we felt we could be one of them.

"But the thought that any club would have an eight-game lead at this point? We didn't anticipate that. I didn't see anybody doing that."

Every team except the Kansas City Royals held a share of first place at some point in the season, but the Twins rebounded from a 2-9 start and ran away with the division title in the second half.

Few could have expected that to happen, not with the defending American League champion Oakland Athletics intact and several other teams improved. The Twins were improved, too, but they still figured to finish no better than fourth or fifth.

"I couldn't have sat here six months ago and told you that we'd win the division, but I could have told you that we'd be a better team," center fielder Kirby Puckett said. "I guess that's not saying much, but I felt really good coming out of spring training. I could feel something special.

"We had the best record in baseball in spring training. We got off to a little slow start, but since then we've been playing great baseball."

Nobody in the American League has done it better. The Twins have parlayed a terrific performance by their top three starting pitchers and a league-leading .282 team batting average into another triumph for manager Tom Kelly.

Erickson, who showed promise with a 5-0 September in 1990, has made a strong bid for this year's Cy Young Award. He kept the Twins afloat with a 15-1 record from late April into early August and needs a victory in his final start of the regular season to become the club's 13th 20-game winner.

Tapani (16-9, 2.90 ERA) has been the most consistent Twins pitcher in

the second half. He was one of the pitching prospects the club acquired from the New York Mets for left-hander Frank Viola in a blockbuster trade that turned out very nicely for the Twins.

Morris lost 18 games (and won 15) for the Detroit Tigers last year, but that didn't discourage MacPhail, who signed him as a free agent and has not had reason to regret it. The winningest pitcher of the 1980s might have looked like the biggest free-agent gamble of the '90s, but he has provided stability and leadership along with his 18 victories.

"It came as a little bit of a surprise to me that there was an undercurrent that the better years were behind Jack," MacPhail said. "I never saw a scouting report that indicated that. When we reviewed the free-agent reports, we actually looked at him as unattainable.

"Clearly, Detroit didn't think Morris was over the hill if they made him an offer of $9.3 million over three years."

Morris said he is the same pitcher he was in the mid-1980s, when he won 20 games or more twice and averaged 18 victories over a six-year period. But he is not ready to take any credit for the development of Erickson and Tapani, even if everyone else is quick to note his stabilizing influence on the starting rotation.

"I'd like to take credit for that," Morris said, "but the fact is that they are two great young pitchers who are on their way to great careers. They rubbed off on me, too. It's been fun for all of us. You see one of them go out and do well, you want to do well, too."

Perhaps the bigger gamble -- from an organizational standpoint -- was the acquisition of Davis, whose run production had dropped off considerably during his final season with the California Angels.

The move was considered at the time to be a desperation play the Twins, who just had lost third baseman Gary Gaetti to the Angels as a "new-look" free agent. Davis, who had 12 home runs and 58 RBI in 1990, was signed to replace Gaetti in the No. 5 spot in the lineup. He has done that and more, leading the Twins with 28 home runs and 91 RBI.

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