TORONTO -- It all must have seemed so implausible six months ago, when the Minnesota Twins were off to a 2-9 start and the prospects for another year as an American League West bottom-dweller seemed very good, indeed.
But the Twins are the American League champions today. They became the first team in major-league history to go from last place one year to a pennant the next, and they did it by making short work of the same Toronto Blue Jays club that had dominated them during the regular season.
Five games and out. The Twins came back from three runs down to score an 8-5 victory yesterday and win their second trip to the World Series in five years.
Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek, who had been criticized for their lack of production during the first two games of the series, drove in three runs in the eighth inning -- Puckett's tie-breaking single completing a five-game MVP performance that included two home runs and six RBI.
The Twins' bullpen made it all possible, holding the Blue Jays to one hit over the last five innings. Left-hander David West got the victory for three hitless innings in relief of struggling starter Kevin Tapani. Carl Willis shut down the Blue Jays in the eighth, and Rick Aguilera finished them off with his third save.
"We just have a good ballclub, and we had a great year," said Aguilera, whose scoreless ninth inning kept the bullpen ERA at 0.00 for the series. "It's a tribute to Tom Kelly, because he has kept us loose and kept us from getting too cocky. It's also a tribute to [Twins owner] Carl Pohlad and [general manager] Andy MacPhail, who went out and got some guys to help."
The Twins couldn't have gotten to the playoffs without free agents Jack Morris and Chili Davis, both of whom made tremendous contributions to the club's division drive. But the last-to-first turnaround was accomplished with a seemingly perfect mix of the old and the new. The playoffs were the same story.
Puckett rebounded from a slow start to bat .429 in the series. He jump-started the Twins' offense Saturday night with a fourth-inning home run and came back to drive in the first run of Game 5 with a first-inning homer off Blue Jays starter Tom Candiotti.
"A lot of guys wrote him off after he went 1-for-7 in the first two games," Kelly said. "But he had a good three games here. He can get 10 hits faster than anyone I've ever seen. He really looked focused here. He zeroed in on the pitcher."
There was much made of the comparisons between this Minnesota ballclub and the team that won the world championship in 1987, but the '91 version established an identity all its own by sweeping the three games at SkyDome.
The 1987 club did it with an almost magical home-field advantage. The '91 Twins did it all by themselves. The World Series will open at the Metrodome on Saturday, but these Twins will not be dependent on the decibel level to compete with the winner of the National League Championship Series.
It looked for the longest time as if the AL series would have to go back to the Metrodome. The Twins took an early lead with single runs in the first two innings, but Tapani gave up three in the third and two in the fourth, as the Blue Jays built a 5-2 lead for the partisan crowd of 51,425.
"We knew we had to come out and win the ballgame," said foot-sore designated hitter Joe Carter, who doubled home a run in the three-run third. "Tapani had awesome stuff -- better than the other times we saw him this year -- but we got to him. They just came back. We couldn't hold them. They've been coming back all year. That's the kind of ballclub they have."
Candiotti, whose place in the playoff rotation seemed to be in jeopardy right up to game time, recovered from a rocky start to pitch a creditable first five innings. If he could have survived a little longer, the Blue Jays might still be in the hunt.
The Twins had runners on base in every inning he pitched, but Candiotti escaped from a bases-loaded jam in the fifth before leaving the game with runners at first and third and none out in the sixth.
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston had been ejected from the game after the second inning for cursing home plate umpire Mike Reilly, so fill-in Gene Tenace was back in charge, just three weeks after he completed a 33-game run as Gaston's injury replacement during the regular sea
son. He apparently was making the pitching decisions, and he decided to bring on rookie Mike Timlin with the potential tying run at the plate.
Timlin got Greg Gagne to foul out, but the Twins got a run when Kelly Gruber fielded a bouncer by Dan Gladden and threw to the plate. Catcher Pat Borders took the throw, but tagged Shane Mack with the wrong hand. Rookie Chuck Knoblauch followed with a slicing double to right that scored both runners and tied the game.
The double capped an impressive playoff series for Knoblauch, who set an ALCS rookie record with seven hits in the five games.