MINNEAPOLIS -- All of a sudden the Minnesota Twins look like a different, yet familiar, team to the Toronto Blue Jays.
All season long, whenever they met, the Blue Jays consistently forced the issue against the Twins. Strong pitching, an opportunistic offense and good defense produced eight wins in 12 meetings.
But this is different. The 162-game schedule is over, something that might not have dawned on Toronto manager Cito Gaston early enough last night.
The Twins and Blue Jays are into the "short season," and last night the Western Division champions looked remarkably like the Eastern Division champions. Given a couple of breaks early, the Twins forced the issue throughout to take early command of the American League Championship Series.
It wasn't just a 5-4 win that gave the Twins a leg up in the best-of-seven series -- it was the way Minnesota went about business.
"I guess we just brought the game to them today," said Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett. "[Tom] Candiotti had something to do with it, but we forced the issue.
"The Blue Jays get all that attention because of the speed of their top two guys," said Puckett. "We started thinking that maybe we can get some of that attention for ourselves."
The Twins set the tone in the first inning when they scored twice without bat and ball making any distinctive sound. This was a slap-your-face attack rather than a knockdown punch.
"When the leadoff man gets on every inning it makes it tough for a knuckleball pitcher," said Candiotti, who hung around for 3 1/3 innings, a bit longer than necessary, and gave up all five Minnesota runs.
Picking up their cue, the Twins stole four bases, constantly had the hit-and- run working and raced to a 5-0 lead. This was the same team that was 16th in the major leagues with 107 stolen bases and hadn't swiped more than three in a game all year.
Despite those revealing numbers, Minnesota manager Tom Kelly acted like the running Twins were no more a surprise than a matching pair of 2-year olds at Laurel.
"Raise your hand if you were surprised," Kelly said when it was noted the Twins were aggressive early in the game.
"We like to run when we get the chance," said Kelly. "Tonight was a chance against Candiotti. You take a shot on the slow curve and knuckleball and you put a lot of pressure on [catcher Pat] Borders. He's got to catch balls in the dirt and then throw.
"We were fortunate to get some people on base, and they were the right people. I'm positive we got him [Candiotti] out of his game plan," said Kelly. "He threw more fastballs and sliders. We did a pretty good job of hitting and [batting coach] Terry Crowley prepared the hitters very, very well."
Regardless of how well prepared the Twins might have been, however, they also got a couple of breaks in the crucial early stages. The first two batters (Dan Gladden and Chuck Knoblauch) hit ground ball singles just to the right of Toronto shortstop Manny Lee.
On Knoblauch's hit, Lee appeared to take a bad angle in an effort to get to the ball fast enough to start a double play. Instead of a questionable two, or certain one, Lee came up empty and got nobody out. With two outs, Chili Davis floated a blooper to left to drive in the game's first two runs.
"It makes it difficult when you give up two runs without a ball being hit hard," said Candiotti. "It definitely wasn't a typical game for me.
"If you get through the first three innings, with maybe only one run, you get a chance to settle in."
Which is obviously what Gaston had in mind. He didn't start to warm up David Wells in the bullpen until the score was one pitch away from being 4-0.
In the middle of July, trying to preserve a bullpen in the midst of a 162-game schedule, that is more than acceptable. In the first game of a seven-game playoff, after a week of getting a pitching staff aligned, it is questionable -- even if the pitcher involved is the ace.
Kelly almost found himself caught in the same situation. After Roberto Alomar's routine infield pop fly dropped for a single when Knoblauch lost the ball against the background of the Metrodome's murky roof, Jack Morris continued a string that saw him allow five straight hits. That enabled the Blue Jays to trim the lead to 5-4, but Carl Willis came in and shut down Toronto until closer Rick Aguilera retired the final four batters to get the save.
"He [Morris] battled as hard and as tough as he could, and I might be somewhat stupid for not getting him out sooner," admitted Kelly. "But he's our best shooter and I wanted to get him a really good shot at it."
Morris, who pitched despite a sore throat and upper respiratory infection, left during the Blue Jays' three-run sixth inning. It was that rally that shed added light on the game's most questionable decision, made by Toronto third base coach Rich Hacker in the fourth inning.