MINNEAPOLIS -- It was happening again. People were starting to inquire as to the whereabouts of Kirby Puckett, who had not been heard from in several days.
He had disappeared before, so there was no call for alarm. They were asking about him during the American League Championship Series, too, and he showed up just in time to win the Most Valuable Player trophy.
Puckett showed up again Saturday night, just in time to pick up the Minnesota Twins and carry them to a 4-3, extra-inning victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the 88th World Series.
His sudden-death home run off left-hander Charlie Leibrandt in the bottom of the 11th set up last night's seventh-game showdown.
Where's Kirby? That was the question on everyone's lips after the first two games of the playoffs with the Toronto Blue Jays. It became relevant again after he went 3-for-18 with one RBI in the first five games of the World Series.
But if you know Puckett, you shouldn't have to ask. He was there on Saturday night, playing a role in each of the Twins' four runs and making a potentially game-saving catch. When it became apparent that a triple here or a sacrifice fly there wasn't going to be enough, he took matters entirely into his hands. He led off the 11th with a shot to left that cleared the Plexiglas fence and sent the sellout crowd of 55,155 into another fit of Metromania.
"I'm not usually the guy who hits home runs at the end of the game," Puckett said, "but this was a moment I'll never forget. If we didn't win tonight, we were going home."
Puckett celebrated his way around the bases while the fans pushed the decibel readings back to 1987 levels -- which was appropriate, since this was beginning to look like the 1987 World Series all over again, with Minnesota winning all four home games.
"I couldn't believe it," Puckett said. "I finally did something I said I was going to do. I'm such an aggressive swinger. A lot of times I tell myself that I'm going to swing at strikes and then I swing at anything that's close. I told myself that I was going to make him get the ball up. I said to myself that if he throws it down there [low in the strike zone], that he can have it."
But Leibrandt didn't throw it low in the strike zone. He hung a changeup, and Puckett sent it into homer hankie heaven to even the Series at three games apiece.
"He's one of the impact players," Twins manager Tom Kelly said. "So, these kinds of things are going to happen. He played a superlative game, both offensively and defensively. That's why he's an impact player."
Braves manager Bobby Cox could have gone with right-hander Jim Clancy at that point and come back with Leibrandt or Kent Mercker to face the left-handers (Mike Pagliarulo and Kent Hrbek) deeper in the order, but Clancy's 5.71 regular-season ERA with the club didn't exactly establish him as an obvious choice, either. Cox did not second-guess himself afterward.
"Why Charlie?" Cox said. "Why not Charlie? He's a 15-game winner. He was the guy there. He just got a changeup up."