Two AL underdogs barking for respect

Before season, Twins had no team, Angels no shot

now one will make Series

October 08, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- One team wasn't given much of a chance to make the playoffs, which put it a step ahead of an opponent that wasn't supposed to exist.

Could there be a better angle to the American League Championship Series? Or a more unlikely, rags-to-riches story, with enough pages for two cities?

The Anaheim Angels have gotten here by brushing off a 6-14 start, earning the wild card with a franchise-record 99 victories and dismissing the New York Yankees in four games in the Division Series.

The Minnesota Twins had to fight off contraction before worrying about the rest of the Central Division, which they won handily. They were a decided underdog against the Oakland Athletics in the Division Series, but clinched Game 5 on the road.

Proving the doubters wrong has become a specialty of both clubs, which meet tonight in Game 1 at the Metrodome. Too bad they can't continue doing it through the World Series.

Someone has to take a last bow and move aside. Someone has to finally allow the experts to be right and leave these playoffs without a championship.

"Nobody gave us a chance and we beat the best team in the league, hands down," Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "I'm sure you're going to turn on the TV tonight and they're going to say the Angels will win."

Think he's exaggerating?

"The edge has to go to Anaheim, especially with their bullpen," said Oakland infielder Randy Velarde. But what about the Twins' home-field advantage, which comes with a heavy-metal soundtrack played at decibels that can punch a hole through the roof? It's no accident that they're 12-2 in playoff games at the Metrodome.

"It means a lot," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "We had 56,000 screaming idiots in there the other day."

Players on both teams have worn the underdog label like an expensive suit.

It's a tailored fit, and they like showing it off in public. Nobody wants to be the favorite in this series and ruin a good look.

"It seems to me like since the All-Star break, all I've read or heard was that every series was where we were going to have our downfall," Angels closer Troy Percival said. "For me, the last 2 1/2 months have been nothing but playoffs."

"Go back to the first day [of the Division Series]," countered Twins third baseman Corey Koskie. "ESPN was talking about how young we are and how we really didn't have a shot. That adds to the satisfaction. Two years ago, people were saying we were a glorified Triple-A team."

This spring, their future didn't look that bright. Commissioner Bud Selig wanted to wipe the Twins off baseball's slate, but they refused to go away. Sort of like the postseason.

Which brings them back to the issue of respect and how it's eluded them all year.

"No one talks about us much," said Twins center fielder Torii Hunter, "and when they do, it's usually negative."

There were enough disparaging remarks to go around. The Angels were constantly reminded of the playoff failures in 1982 and 1986, when they got within a game of the World Series but came up short. They hadn't made the postseason in 16 years, and last week won their first playoff series in the franchise's 42nd year of existence.

Alternately praised and ridiculed for their little-ball approach, the Angels were strong enough to wrestle a curse to the ground. "If they play like that," said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, "I don't see anyone beating them."

"We basically patterned ourselves after the Yankees," center fielder Darin Erstad said. "We said, `Hey, we've got to move runners. Forget about your stats.' We knew we had to manufacture runs."

They came in bunches in the Division Series. Anaheim scored 31 runs against the Yankees, who will miss the World Series for the first time since 1997.

The deepest rotation in baseball looked like a puddle to the Angels, who batted .376 with nine homers in four games.

"Nobody gave us a chance against the Yankees," said outfielder Tim Salmon.

The Angels, with their eye for detail and persistence at the plate, are similar to the 1996 New York team that won the World Series to begin its latest dynasty.

"Before we got Darryl Strawberry and Cecil Fielder, we had to just live off other people's mistakes and make things happen -- squeeze bunt here, a hit-and-run there," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "When we saw them during the season, they did remind me of the way we played back then."

The Twins are attempting to reach the World Series for the first time since 1991, when Tom Kelly ran the controls and current manager Ron Gardenhire served as his third base coach.

They mirror the Angels in so many ways -- perhaps a reflection of their modest payrolls.

If only they were as healthy and fresh. Utility infielder Denny Hocking won't play because of a cut finger suffered during the on-field celebration.

He had replaced second baseman Luis Rivas, who's dealing with a sore hamstring. And closer Eddie Guardado, who almost blew a 5-1 lead in Game 5, is running on fumes.

"I think Eddie is absolutely worn out right now," Gardenhire said.

It all seems so improbable. Twins vs. Angels. One of them will advance to the World Series, and that team will be the underdog again.

"I don't think we're surprised to be here," Hunter said, "and I don't think Anaheim is surprised, either."

"It's going to be the Rally Monkey vs. the Homer Hanky," Pierzynski said.

"So here we go."

Pitching matchup

Today......................Time/

Starter.......Line..........W-L...........ERA

Anaheim...Appier (R)...-120...14-12...3.96

at Minnesota...Mays(R)...8:19...4-9...5.73

NOTE: Stats include postseseason

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