MINNEAPOLIS -- The 440-foot blast that Kent Hrbek launched into the upper deck on Saturday night did not figure heavily in the outcome of Game 1, but its significance could not have been lost on the Atlanta Braves.
The Minnesota Twins were on their way to a decisive 5-2 victory at the Metrodome in the opener of the 88th World Series . No doubt, they were happy to have an insurance run when the Braves threatened to get back in the game in the late innings, but the mammoth home run meant much more than that.
Hrbek had managed just three singles in the five-game American League Championship Series. He wasn't a factor until his eighth-inning, two-run single provided a cushion in the final game. The Twins probably could have won the ALCS without him, but his presence -- in spirit and in deed -- is needed if they are to do the same in the World Series. Perhaps he sensed this when the Twins were preparing to take the field Saturday night.
"In the clubhouse, he told everybody to get on board, he was going to carry the club tonight," Twins manager Tom Kelly said.
Hrbek delivered a double and his third career postseason home run, which added up to twice as many total bases as he had in the ALCS. Greg Gagne's three-run homer in the fifth was the decisive blow, but if Hrbek has hoisted the team on his wide shoulders, the Braves could be in for some long nights and a short series.
The pre-game prediction made for good post-game fodder, but Hrbek freely admits that he doesn't have anything on Jeane Dixon.
"What Tom didn't tell you is that I said that before every one of the playoff games, too," he said. "Tonight it just happened to work."
Braves starter Charlie Leibrandt, whose presence at the head of the starting rotation was a matter of some discussion the past few days, pitched four-plus innings and gave up four runs on seven hits, the most damaging the three-run homer by Gagne that drove him out of the game in the fifth. Hrbek hit one of the longest home runs at the Metrodome this year off veteran reliever Jim Clancy in the sixth.
Right-hander Jack Morris was happy for the support, though he pitched a strong seven innings. He had a three-run cushion when he walked the first two batters in the eighth and had to turn over the game to relievers Mark Guthrie and Rick Aguilera.
"It's nice to win without your best stuff," Morris said. "I hit a wall in the eighth and let them back in the game. I hate walking guys and I pretty much gave them the opportunity to get back in the game. I was disgusted with myself."
But Guthrie came on to get Terry Pendleton to hit into a big double play. Aguilera gave up a two-out RBI single to Ron Gant, but he retired Sid Bream on a routine fly ball to get out of the inning and pitched a scoreless ninth to record his fourth save of this postseason.
Twice, the Braves came within one big hit of getting back in the game. Twice, Bream came to the plate and came up empty. Gant also drove in the first Atlanta run with the club's third hit of the sixth inning, but Bream, representing the tying run, struck out .
It was not a good day to be a Brave, at least not an Atlanta Brave. Outside the ballpark, demonstrators protested the club's alleged disrespect for American Indian culture. Inside, a noisy sellout crowd of 55,108 cheered the Twins to their eighth victory in nine postseason games at baseball's Monument to Monsanto.
The Braves had heard all the horror stories about the Metrodome. This is where the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals came to die in 1987. This is where the decibel level is supposed to rival a jet taking off in your living room. This is the place where the sky is the same color as the baseball.
"I guess it is a little harder to play here," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, "but I don't think it had a bearing on this ballgame."
The Metrodome might represent all that's wrong with modern baseball, but the Twins took the lead the old-fashioned way in the third inning. Dan Gladden drew a two-out walk, stole second and scored when rookie Chuck Knoblauch hit a single through the right side of the infield.
Knoblauch, whose consistent performance during the regular season should net him the American League Rookie of the Year Award, continues to be a significant offensive threat in the postseason. He singled in each of his first two at-bats on the way to his fourth multiple-hit performance in six postseason games. He also stole two bases.
It wasn't until the fifth that Cox's decision to start Leibrandt came into serious question. The veteran left-hander pitched with runners on base in every inning, but he appeared to have the situation under control until the bottom third of the Minnesota lineup ganged up to run him out of the game.
Hrbek led off with a double and Scott Leius followed with a single before Gagne launched his 380-foot shot to left that gave the Twins a four-run lead.
"I thought Charlie pitched all right," Cox said. "He'd just like to have one pitch back."
There were some good reasons for starting Leibrandt instead of 20-game winner Tom Glavine, who faced Kevin Tapani in Game 2 last night, but Cox may have surrendered a psychological advantage when he went for the least imposing of his four starters.
The Twins had spent the past few days marvelling at a string of tremendous performances by the Braves young starters, none of whom they had seen first-hand. They had to be relieved to see the familiar Leibrandt, who as a member of the Kansas City Royals gave up three long home runs in one inning in his most memorable start here (1987).
(Twins lead series, 1-0) Game 1 -- Minnesota 5, Atlanta 2
Yesterday -- Atlanta at Minnesota
Tomorrow -- Minnesota (Erickson 20-8) at Atlanta (Avery 18-8), 8:29 p.m.
Wednesday -- Minnesota (Morris 18-12) at Atlanta (Smoltz 14-13), 8:26 p.m.
Thursday -- Minnesota at Atlanta, 8:26 p.m.*
Saturday -- Atlanta at Minnesota, 8:26 p.m.*
Sunday -- Atlanta at Minnesota, 8:40 p.m.*
* -- if necessary