This is the second of a four-part series going back in time to the playoff races in Minnesota Twins history in preparation for this year’s team’s playoff run that starts with the American League Division Series on Friday. You can read part one here, which reviews the post-seasons in 1965, 1969 (nice), and 1970.
The 1986 campaign was not a good year for the Twins. Ray Miller, who took over as skipper after Billy Gardner was fired during the 1985 season, also found himself out of a job in mid-September. Third base coach Tom Kelly took over the reigns and lost the “interim” tag by the time 1987 came around. Kirby Puckett, in his second full season with the club, lead the team with his slash line of .328/.266/.537 (.903) and was second on the team in homer (31) and RBI (96). Gary Gaetti was the next-best batter (.287 BA, 34 homers, 108 RBI), and nobody really compared. Most of the starting staff had ERAs over 4.00; there were few saves to be earned - 24 total on the season. Things did not look good after 1986.
In the off-season, a trade with the San Francisco Giants brought Dan Gladden over to the Twins. Jeff Reardon was acquired in a trade with the Montreal Expos. Juan Berenguer signed on as a free agent. With that and a few minor signings and trades along the way, the 1987 Minnesota Twins found themselves at the top of a very weak American League West Division by the end of the season. The Twins’ record of 85-77 would have had them in fifth place if they were in the East Division instead.
The American League Championship Series saw the Twins prevail four games to one against the Detroit Tigers, who had a record of 98-64. Tom Brunansky and Gladden both has seven hits in the series and totaled 14 RBI. Gaetti had two homers and five RBI to his name while Greg Gagne also had a pair of home runs under his belt. Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven turned in great pitching performances to get Minnesota to the World Series for the first time in 22 years, going against the St Louis Cardinals.
The Twins had home field advantage in the World Series, so games one and two were at the Hubert H Humphrey Metrodome. The Cardinals struck first in the top of the second off of Viola in game one, but the Twins put up a crooked number in the bottom of the fourth and never looked back. Kent Hrbek would hit a bases-loaded ground ball through to center field off of Cardinals starter Joe Magrane, plating two runners. Bob Forsch would come in to try and put out the flames for St Louis, but a Tim Laudner single and a Gladden grand salami would seal the deal for the first game as Viola went eight strong innings to earn the win. The bottom of the fourth in game two was also the big inning for the Twins, as they were able to score six runs off of Danny Cox and Lee Tunnell to get Blyleven his third win of the post-season.
The series then moved to St Louis, where the Cardinals took three fairly close games. Les Straker threw six solid innings for Minnesota, but Berenguer allowed three runs in the bottom of the seventh courtesy of Vince Coleman and Ozzie Smith, giving him the loss in a 3-1 final for game three. Game four saw the Cardinals explode for some runs in the bottom of the fourth as Viola gave up a three-run homer to Tom Lawless. Dan Schatzeder came in and made more of a mess, allowing three more runs to make it a six-run inning while St Louis never looked back. Blyleven got tagged with the L in game five as three runs - one un-earned—would be what was needed for a 4-2 final in favor of the Cardinals.
The series shifted back to Minneapolis with St Louis leading the series 3-2. Game six was a back-and-forth contest. Straker started the game for Minnesota, but could only go three-plus innings, giving up a home run to Tom Herr and a pair of RBI singles before exiting in the fourth. Two RBI singles - one from Puckett and one from Don Baylor - gave the Twins two runs when they entered the bottom of the fifth behind by a score of 5-2. The Twins strung together a single, RBI double, Baylor homer, and later an RBI single to take a 6-5 lead. Then in the sixth, Hrbek came up to the plate with the bases juiced:
After the 10-5 lead, the Twins would ride the backs of Berenguer and Reardon to victory and force a Game 7 matchup. Viola got the nod against Joe Magrane for all the marbles, and Viola went eight strong innings, allowing six hits and two earned runs on seven strikeouts to earn the win. Even though Viola allowed the two runs in the top of the second, the Twins played small-ball to come from behind and win. RBI hits from Lombardozzi, Gladden, Gagne, and Puckett would secure the championship for the Twins for the first time in team history.
Gaetti and Puckett each won a Gold Glove for their respective positions. Puckett, the Twins’ lone All-Star, was also awarded a Silver Slugger Award for his .332/.367/.534 triple slash during the ‘87 season. Gaetti won the ALCS MVP and Viola was the World Series MVP.
The next three seasons saw Minnesota slide down the standings each year. A second-place finish in the 1988 American League West was followed by a fifth-place finish in 1989 and a last-place finish in 1990. The Oakland Athletics had taken a hold on the West for three consecutive years. However, the Twins went out and signed Chili Davis and Jack Morris before the ‘91 season as the pitching corp was unrecognizable from previous years. Rookie Chuck Knoblauch was hitting .281 with 25 stolen bases. Along with Morris, Kevin Tapani, Scott Erickson, and Rick Aguilera, along with a 15-game winning streak, helped propel the Twins to the A.L. West pennant for the first time since 1987 with a 95-67 record.
The Twins took the ALCS 4-1 from the Toronto Blue Jays. Morris started twice, going 13.1 innings and giving up six earned runs between his two starts. Puckett went 9-for-21, hitting two homers and notching six RBI while Knoblauch, Gladden, Hrbek, Shane Mack, and Mike Pagliarulo each contributed three RBI each. Aguilera closed out three games and earned a save from each, allowing only one hit over 3.1 innings.
The Twins faced the Atlanta Braves, who also went from worst to first between the two seasons, in the Fall Classic. Minnesota once again had home field advantage, hosting games one and two in the friendly confines of the Metrodome. Game one was all Twins as Knoblauch hit a grounder through the right side of the infield off of Charlie Leibrandt, scoring Gladden for the first run of the game. The blow came in the bottom of the fifth as Greg Gagne smacked a three-run homer to left field, giving the Twins a 4-0 lead. Hrbek tacked on another run in the bottom of the sixth with a solo shot of his own, and with Morris going seven-plus innings, Mark Guthrie and Aguilera put the game on ice.
Game two had Tom Glavine and Tapani face off in a close contest. A two-run homer from Chili Davis put the Twins on top in the bottom of the first while a sacrifice fly got the Braves a run in the top of the second and the top of the fifth. The first pitch from Glavine to Scott Leius in the eighth inning was hit over the left field glass for a home run, which would be the difference in game two. Oh, and this happened in the third:
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The middle three games of the series was in Atlanta, and Gladden started off game three with a triple and came in on a sacrifice fly from Knoblauch to get an early lead. The Braves scored the next four runs - an RBI single, two solo homers, and a bases-loaded walk - before Puckett and Davis tied it up again with a solo shots of their own in the seventh and eighth. Aguilera came in for the 12th and lost the game on a single as the Braves walked off the Twins.
Steve Bedrosian got tagged with the walk-off L in game four in a game that saw Pagliarulo hit an RBI single and a solo homer for the Twins only runs, while Terry Pendleton hit a homer off of Morris and Lonnie Smith off of Carl Willis to tie the game. Game five was a “laffer” as they say; the Twins falling 14-4. Al Newman hit an RBI triple late in that contest.
The Twins came home behind one game to the Braves. The next two games were nail-biters. Game six started well for the Minnesota offense, as a Puckett RBI triple and a Mack RBI single got the Twins on the board in the first. Scott Erickson held his own through four innings until the fifth saw him relinquish the lead with a two-run shot from Pendleton. Puckett hit a sacrifice fly to score Gladden in the fifth to re-take the lead, but Ron Gant would tie it up by bringing Mark Lemke home on a groundout in the seventh. Zeros were traded back and forth and into extra innings until, well...
Now with a win-or-go-home game to play, Tom Kelly sent out future hall-of-famer Jack Morris to start game seven. Bobby Cox sent out future hall-of-famer John Smoltz. Smoltz lasted 7.1 innings, giving up six hits and striking out four, giving way to Mike Stanton, who finished the eighth in a rocky way (two hits, one walk), but got Hrbek to line out into a double play to end the inning. Alejandro Pena, who was traded from the New York Mets to the Braves in late August (Joe Roa was a player to be named later in that trade) and notched 11 saves for Atlanta, was called upon to finish the ninth and continue pitching in the tenth. He faced Gladden, who doubled, Knoblauch, who laid down a sacrifice bunt, and intentionally walked Puckett and Hrbek to load the bases for Gene Larkin, and on the first pitch...
Morris went the distance: 10 IP, 7 H, 8 K, 2 BB, and earned the World Series MVP award to go with his All-Star honors. Aguilera also had All-Star status in ‘91 with Puckett, who won the ALCS MVP award and his penultimate Gold Glove. Knoblauch won Rookie of the Year honors and Tom Kelly was named A.L. Manager of the Year.
The Twins fell into a deep decline for the next decade, leading to a change at the helm of the Twins ship with a face that’s familiar to all of us. Tomorrow, we re-visit the 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006 postseasons.