Larkin proves right switch for Twins

October 28, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Evening Sun Staff

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota pinch-hitter Gene Larkin raised his right fist in triumph. Dan Gladden did the same at third base. It was immediately obvious Larkin's flyball to left would be deep enough to win the World Series.

The thing that wasn't obvious moments before the decisive at-bat was whether Larkin would bat from the right side or left. The switch-hitter picked out two helmets and two bats. "I was ready for whatever they threw at me," he said.

Larkin, 29, wound up batting lefthanded when Atlanta manager Bobby Cox stuck with reliever Alejandro Pena, who issued intentional walks to Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek, loading the bases with one out in the 10th inning and the score tied 0-0.

Both Larkin and Twins manager Tom Kelly thought Cox might summon lefthander Kent Mercker to face Hrbek, who was 0-for-8 with men in scoring position in the Series. But Cox chose to set up a force at every base.

That brought up Larkin in place of Jarvis Brown, who had entered the game as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning. It was Larkin's fourth pinch-hit appearance of the Series. He delivered a single in Game 3.

This time he swung at Pena's first pitch, a belt-high fastball, and sent it to the opposite field. The Braves' outfield was playing shallow to thwart a possible sacrifice fly. The ball sailed over leftfielder Brian Hunter's head.

With that, Larkin became the last unlikely hero of the worst-to-first World Series. The reserve first baseman/outfielder received credit for the RBI single that gave the Twins their 1-0 victory and second world championship in five years.

"He was worrying about which helmet to use," Kelly said afterward. "He thought they might bring in a lefthander. Mercker was warming up. But I said, 'Geno, this is their man.' "

Pena, 32, converted 14 straight saves after arriving from the New York Mets Aug. 29. He finally blew one in Game 3, but the Braves won 4-3 in 12 innings. Cox summoned him with the score tied in each of the final two games.

Saturday night Pena worked two scoreless innings, but Charlie Leibrandt gave up the game-winning homer to Kirby Puckett in the 11th. Last night, Pena survived a first-and-third, none-out jam in the ninth, but got into trouble when Gladden hit a broken-bat leadoff double in the 10th.

Kelly ordered Chuck Knoblauch to sacrifice, realizing the Braves might walk Puckett and Hrbek to get to Brown. There was no way Brown would hit: He spent most of the year at Triple A and has only 37 major-league at-bats.

That left Larkin, a five-year veteran who averaged 450 at-bats from 1988-90, but was limited to 255 this season. He batted a career-high .286 with two homers and 19 RBIs.

"I was nervous in the dugout," Larkin said. "But Herbie [Hrbek] said, 'Why don't you just end it for all of us?' "

Team man that he is, Larkin complied.

"Damn that was a nice swing," Kelly shouted as Larkin spoke to reporters afterward. "Has he opened his eyes yet?"

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