ATLANTA -- Minnesota reliever Rick Aguilera stood in the center of the clubhouse talking to reporters. "Aggie!" manager Tom Kelly shouted. "Tell 'em about the beautiful swing you took."
Aguilera and the Twins absorbed a 5-4 defeat in Game 3 of the World Series last night, but all anyone wanted to know about was his 12th-inning at-bat, when he became the first pitcher to pinch-hit in the Series since Don Drysdale in 1965.
It would have made a great story: Helpless American League pitcher delivering a game-winning hit with two outs and the bases loaded. It almost happened, too, but Aguilera's sharp line drive was caught by Atlanta centerfielder Ron Gant.
"I thought he swung the bat great," said Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek, who twice took called third strikes with runners in scoring position in extra innings. "He hit the ball as hard as anybody on the team."
Aguilera, 29, wasn't exactly a novice -- he was an all-league infielder at Edgewood H.S. in West Covina, Calif. -- but he hadn't batted since July 20, 1989, as a member of the New York Mets. He is a lifetime .203 hitter with three homers and 11 RBI in 138 at-bats.
This entire mess, of course, was caused by the fact that the American League uses the designated hitter and the National League does not. In the World Series, the DH bats only in the AL city. Pitchers hit in NL parks.
Kelly labelled the situation "a joke," for pitchers haven't hit regularly in the AL since 1972. He pinch-hit three times for pitchers and a Series record eight times in all before finally running out of position players.
Reliever Mark Guthrie was scheduled to hit against Jim Clancy in the 12th, but he already had pitched two innings. Kelly was set to turn to his closer Aguilera, even though the score was tied.
Kelly called Aguilera "our best-hitting pitcher," and not without reason. Aguilera actually pinch-hit once for the Mets in 1986, and drew a walk. Braves catcher Greg Olson knew all about him; both came out of the Mets' farm system.
"He's a great athlete," said Olson, who called for a slider rather than a fastball on the first pitch. "I knew he could swing the bat. He's as good a hitter as some guys hitting in the No. 8 hole."
But Aguilera didn't get a hit, and he still had to pitch. Going back to 1987, the Twins' bullpen had worked 32 2/3 innings in post-season play without allowing an earned run. Aguilera, of course, had contributed to that streak this year with five saves.
On this night, though, it wasn't meant to be. Aguilera gave up a walk and two singles, including Mark Lemke's game-winner with two outs. It was a crushing defeat, but afterward he exhibited the classic closer's mentality.
"You can't get all uptight about it," he said. "We've got another game coming up pretty quick."