Stuck in middle Twins need to unwrap 3-4-5 hitters to beat Jays

October 11, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

TORONTO -- After two games of the American League Championship Series, now reduced to a best-of-five matchup, one thing has become abundantly clear.

If the middle of the Minnesota Twins' batting order doesn't get a Canadian wakeup call, baseball will have its first international World Series.

Forget the five runs the Western Division champions manufactured in Game 1. That was a mirage. Chuck Knoblauch is proving himself to be more than just a legitimate Rookie of the Year choice and Dan Gladden is a proven postseason player -- but the first two batters in the lineup are not what the Twins are all about.

Minnesota has good enough pitching to win this series, but it isn't good enough to dominate the Blue Jays without at least modest offensive support.

Twins manager Tom Kelly was a little miffed after Game 2 when somebody asked him about Kirby Puckett's lack of production, and deflected the attention toward Kent Hrbek. But the fact remains that Puckett, Hrbek and Chili Davis, hitting 3-4-5, have contributed only three measly singles.

Granted, the first two games have produced more broken-bat hits than line drives, but except for the first three innings of Game 1 the Twins' offense has been dormant. Tom Candiotti, Toronto's first game starter, is the only pitcher they've been able to solve, and there could be a message there.

All of the other pitchers the Blue Jays have used are of the power variety. And Toronto manager Cito Gaston has gotten enough of a hint that he's rumored to be considering Juan Guzman as his starter in Game 5, rather than wait until the series possibly returns to Minnesota.

"If I had to face those three pitchers every day, I'd be a little bit balder than I am," Davis said after Guzman, Tom Henke and Duane Ward throttled the Twins two days ago to even the series. Davis didn't have to stop with those three. He could have added the names of David Wells and Mike Timlin, other hard-throwing relievers, and Todd Stottlemyre, the Game 4 starter who doesn't exactly throw marshmallows up there.

That leaves Jimmy Key, the lefthanded softballer who pitches tonight against the Twins' Scott Erickson, as the only other Blue Jays' hurler who isn't a speed freak.

The Twins are a predominantly righthanded-hitting team, one reason Key was kept out of the first two games. "The idea was to try and get them off-balance with Candiotti's knuckleballs, then come back with hard stuff," said one Toronto scout.

This series has been billed by both managers as a duel between the first two hitters in each lineup -- but it really revolves more around Minnesota's ability to keep Devon White and Roberto Alomar off base.

If the Twins have to rely on Gladden and Knoblauch to manufacture enough runs to win a seven-game series they are in deep trouble. "We've had some chances [with the middle men in the lineup], we just haven't taken advantage of them," admitted Kelly.

Of the three big men in the Minnesota lineup, Puckett is the key to generating runs, but Hrbek is the guy who can supply instant offense. The Twins remember that the big first baseman hit only .150 in the ALCS and .208 in the World Series during their miracle run to the world championship in 1987.

However, Hrbek hit a big home run in the second playoff game that made it all believable -- and then hit a grand slam that enabled the Twins to force a seventh game in the World Series.

Hrbek has the slugger's mentality, and knows he can do more damage with one swing than his batting average [.284] would suggest. "My bat is awful silent right now," said Hrbek. "It's been a yes or no deal -- and so far it's been a no deal for me and Puck and a couple of more guys."

Hrbek will be the only lefthanded hitter in the lineup against Key tonight, and it should be an interesting matchup. He hit a solid .281 against lefthanders.

In addition, lefthanders (.286) have fared better against Key than righthanders (.249), probably because his sinker tends to move into a lefthander's power and away from righthanders. Puckett, however, is especially effective against lefthanders (.406 this year) and the Twins as a team fare better against them (.291) than they do against righthanders (.276).

While the Twins try to figure out how to get the offense untracked, the Blue Jays hope the top of their lineup continues to be productive -- and that the SkyDome advantage will be enough to end the series here in five games. White and Alomar, who might be the best player in the series, are 7-for-15 (.467) in the two games and have scored six of Toronto's nine runs.

Shutting those two down is almost as big a priority for the Twins as getting their own middle men more involved.

This could be the most pivotal game of the series for the Twins. They will be facing the pitcher who would appear to be most vulnerable to their lineup, while countering with a 20-game winner in Erickson.

If the Twins are going to regain control of the series and assure themselves a return home, it is almost imperative they score early against Key. They have not fared well against the Blue Jays' bullpen (no runs in 8 2/3 innings in this series), and there's no indication that will change drastically any time soon.

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