By being good and lucky this year, Twins have best of both worlds

JOHN EISENBERG

October 15, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

There is this to say about the pennant-winning, worst-to-firsting, Blue Jay-bamboozling Minnesota Twins: As balanced, guileful and just plain tough as they have proved to be, they also are lucky.

More than a little lucky. A lot lucky. They could be this year's poster children for the Society of Fortune and the Fortunate. They have used up their allotment for 1991 and maybe borrowed a little on next year.

This is not to imply they're in any way undeserving of their place in the World Series, or that their chances of winning are diminished. They won 95 regular-season games and four of five in the playoffs. They rate.

But this is the point: The Twins, like the Orioles and just about every other team, took a series of steps to try to improve in 1991, and every one of them -- every single step -- proved bountiful.

That is off-the-board lucky. To devise a blueprint and not stumble across a single serious sprain or big bust or bad break, well, that's a lottery-winning proposition.

It would be as if Glenn Davis had hit 35 homers and Dwight Evans had hit 20 and Ben McDonald had won 20 games and Randy Milligan had driven in 95 runs and Luis Mercedes had come up running in June and. . . . You get the picture. Such is the story of the Twins this season. There is so much supporting evidence that it is hard to pick a place to begin. The free agents? The rotation? Second base? The bullpen?

OK, let's start with the free agents. The Twins invested big off-season money in Jack Morris and Chili Davis. Morris was 35 and coming off two straight losing seasons in which his ERA was 4.41 for the Tigers. Davis had hit 12 homers for the Angels.

What happened? Morris went 18-12 and is up for the Cy Young Award. Davis had a career year, with 29 homers and 93 RBI. The Twins can say they knew something the other clubs didn't, but the truth is they got a little lucky.

Hey, they didn't even want Davis originally. They wanted the Rangers' Pete Incaviglia to be the power-booster they felt they needed. A trade was discussed, and only when it collapsed did the Twins sign Davis. Meanwhile, Incaviglia went to Detroit and had a bad year.

Many other teams invested in free agents of similar or better stature, but only the Twins hit it so big. They also got 77 innings of decent relief from Steve Bedrosian and competent third base from Mike Pagliarulo, whose home run in Game 3 was the biggest hit of the American League playoffs.

Of course, it is important to note that the Twins put themselves in position to win by going out and getting these free agents, a lesson from which the Orioles certainly can learn. The Twins got lucky, yes, but they did give themselves a chance to get lucky.

Their luck wasn't just a matter of signing the right free agents, though. There was more. Such as the two starters behind Morris in the rotation, Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani, who combined for 36 wins.

Erickson was a fourth-round draft pick two years ago. That means the Twins hoped he'd develop into a decent starter one day. He was a 20-game winner in two years and, like Morris, is up for the Cy Young.

Tapani was a control pitcher coming off a season in which his ERA was 4.08. He also was 27 with only 14 career wins, almost to that point at which people were tiring of his potential. But he found the strike zone this year, winning 16 games -- that's right, surpassing his career total.

And, as if all that wasn't enough, there was Chuck Knoblauch and Carl Willis.

Knoblauch was a no-name rookie in March. The Twins figured he was their second baseman of the future, but that, at best, he'd back up Nelson Liriano this year. Not only did he beat out Liriano, but he also batted .281 and is a cinch for AL Rookie of the Year.

Then there was Willis, the longest shot of all. He'd bounced around the minors for years and began 1991 in Class AAA. As soon as the Twins called him up, he became a load-carrier in the bullpen, finishing with eight wins and 89 innings.

You figure that's enough good fortune, right? Well, let's not forget Shane Mack. The Twins took him from the Padres in the 1989 major-league draft when he was 26 and couldn't get past Class AAA. Since coming to the Twins, he is a terror, at .317 with 118 RBI.

Good scouting? Maybe. Good luck? Definitely.

Add it all up, and it's a windfall of new and unforeseen production.

Sure, the Twins had some fine set pieces -- Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Rick Aguilera -- but those players had carried them to last place in 1990. So much had to go right this year that even an optimist such as Puckett couldn't envision their winning baseball's toughest division.

"I'm not going to lie and say I thought we could do this," Puckett said after the Twins won the pennant Sunday in Toronto. "But we got big years from a lot of people."

A number of other teams were in a similar position. There is not a great talent gap in the majors these days. All you can do is stock enough apparent talent to give yourself a chance. And then hope. Hope you get good breaks, not bad. Hope you get as lucky as the Twins did in 1991.

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