MINNEAPOLIS -- What will count most in the "Worst To First World Series -- rest or zest?
You can almost hear the wheels spinning in the mind of John Oates as he ponders this most improbable of all fall classics.
The Orioles' manager will be in the stands tomorrow night when the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves open a World Series that has already defied all odds. Oates can be forgiven for dreaming something like this might happen again next year.
Both the Twins and the Braves finished last in their respective divisions a year ago. Atlanta lost two more games (97) a year ago than the Orioles did this year.
But, before looking too far ahead, Oates was asked which team he thought was best prepared for the World Series -- the well-rested Twins, who beat Toronto in five games and haven't played since last Sunday, or the Braves, who completed their fairy tale by beating Pittsburgh in the seventh game last night?
Oates thinks the Twins will win, but he'd rather be in the Braves' position.
"I just think that the way the Twins have been playing, they'll be awfully tough to beat," Oates said from his home in Virginia before leaving for Minnesota. "I didn't think there was any way they could beat Toronto in five games."
In fact, Oates admits he didn't think the Twins would beat the Blue Jays in a series of any length. "I thought Toronto would win it all because of their pitching."
As Oates sees it, the biggest advantage for the Twins after the early clinching is the fact manager Tom Kelly will have his pitchers rested and his rotation set the way he wants it. "The fact that everybody will be well rested is the big advantage," said Oates. "The only concern will be that the pitchers have had too much rest. There's only so much you can do while sitting around for six days."
Conversely, the Braves will not have their rotation set the way it was when the National League Championship Series got under way. Lefthander Tom Glavine will face Jack Morris in the opener, but Steve Avery and John Smoltz, the second and third starters for Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, will not be available until the third and fourth games. And Smoltz, who pitched the pennant clincher last night, will probably be restricted to just one start.
That and a possible letdown after coming from behind to win a division title and then the pennant, will be the biggest obstacles for the Braves, according to Oates. Still, he thinks they could be in a good position to continue their run.
"They won't have their rotation set the way Cox might like, but if I had my choice I think I'd rather be in the Braves' shoes [coming into the Series]," said Oates. "I'd rather be playing than sitting -- it keeps you on edge.
"I think the possibility of a letdown is greater with Atlanta than it would have been with Pittsburgh," said Oates, "because the Pirates had the disappointment last year [losing to the Reds in the playoffs]."
Although he has come to respect them as a team, Oates feels the Twins are almost as amazing a story as the Braves -- and that they came together after a three-game sweep of the Orioles June 3-5.
"When we saw them in spring training, they weren't overly impressive, and when they started 2-and-9 they didn't excite anybody," said Oates. "At that time you couldn't be sure about Morris or [Chili] Davis, and they had a hole at second base. Except for [Kirby] Puckett, [Kent] Hrbek and what [Scott] Erickson did at the end of last year there wasn't a whole lot you could count on. Based on what they had done the year before [74-88] nobody in their right mind could've picked them to win.
"But, when we went in there and lost three in a row, all one-run games, I think that's when everything started to come together for them and they put together that 15-game win streak. And one of the keys was that little second baseman [Chuck Knoblauch]," said Oates. "He filled a big hole for them and is a real unsung hero in their offense."
Since those early days of June the Twins established themselves as a team without glaring weaknesses. The emergence of Carl Willis solidified the bullpen, easing the load on closer Rick Aguilera.
In addition, lefthander David West began to fulfill the potential that made him the key player in the Frank Viola trade two years ago. Aguilera and Kevin Tapani, the probable Game 2 starter, were also in that trade, which now ranks as the most important step in rebuilding the 1987 world champions.
"I think they have the advantage in having the first two games, plus the extra game, at home," said Oates. "Plus they'll have the designated hitter for four games. I think it's a real advantage for the National League in the games in which the pitchers have to hit. Some American League pitchers have never had an at-bat since they became professionals."
The Series intrigues Oates, and not just because it will feature two last-place teams from a year ago. "There are a lot of variables," he said. "You can't tell how the two teams will react until they come out of the chute.
"You don't know whether the Braves will have a letdown in the Metrodome, or if the extra rest helped or hurt the Twins' pitchers."
The only thing certain about this World Series is that there won't be a real loser. When you go from last to first and end up in the final two you can only be a runner-up -- not a loser.
* SATURDAY: Atlanta (Glavine 20-11) at Minnesota (Morris 18-12), 8:29 p.m.
* SUNDAY: Atlanta (Avery 18-8) at Minnesota (Tapani 16-9), 8:40 p.m.
* TUESDAY: Minnesota (Erickson 20-8) at Atlanta (Smoltz 14-13), 8:29 p.m.
* WEDNESDAY: Minnesota at Atlanta, 8:26 p.m.
* THURSDAY: Minnesota at Atlanta, 8:26 p.m., if necessary
* OCT. 26: Atlanta at Minnesota, 8:26 p.m., if necessary
* OCT. 27: Atlanta at Minnesota, 8:40 p.m., if necessary