'Train' Willis helps keep Twins on winning track AL playoff notes

October 09, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

MINNEAPOLIS AT. PLAYOFF — MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins are still undefeated in postseason play at the Metrodome, and one of the main reasons is a righthanded pitcher they call "Big Train."

Carl Willis is big enough (6 feet 4, 212 pounds) for his nickname, but his track record won't remind anybody of Walter Johnson. This is Willis' ninth year in professional baseball and the Twins are the fourth major-league team to take a look.

He has never spent a full year in the big leagues, but this season he pulled his cargo in from Portland and compiled an 8-3 record for the Twins. His story reads like it came from the script followed by the Orioles' Todd Frohwirth.

Last night Willis relieved Jack Morris and pitched 2 1/3 perfect innings, setting the table for closer Rick Aguilera.

"I'm just thankful I didn't give up on everything," said Willis. "I had such a horrendous year in Triple A [last year], I didn't think anybody would be interested in me."

Signed as a minor-league free agent, Willis pitched in three games for Portland, then came to the big leagues, where he had a 2.63 earned run average in 89 innings.

"He's special for me because I spent eight years in the minors and I know what he's talking about," said Twins manager Tom Kelly. "It's a great story for Carl and the Twins. He did a fantastic job."

The only scare for Willis came from the first hitter he faced. Candy Maldonado hit a ball that carried to the fence in left-centerfield before being caught by Dan Gladden. "I was holding my breath the whole time," said Willis. "I personally thought it was gone. Maybe it took something like that to get me going."

And it might have taken something like that to change Maldonado's strategy. When he led off the ninth inning against Aguilera, with no home run threats behind him, Maldonado tried to bunt his way on base on an 0-and-1 pitch -- and eventually struck out.

* WEST DOMINANCE: The Western Division has won the last four American League pennants (Minnesota in 1987, Oakland the last three years) and that's not even the worst of it for Eastern Division teams.

The AL East champion has won only two of 19 games played in that span.

In 1987, the Twins won six straight at the Metrodome en route to the world championship -- beating Detroit twice and St. Louis four times.

* NOISE NO FACTOR: Toronto manager Cito Gaston said the noise factor in the Metrodome is a carry-over from St. Louis' problems here in 1987.

"I don't think that [noise] bothers American League teams," said Gaston. "The National League had a problem with it -- and hopefully they won't have to worry about it this year."

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