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Baseball Playoffs : Twins Put One Over on Tigers Under the Dome

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Times Staff Writer

It is an outside chance, at best, but it’s the only one the Minnesota Twins have. To get into the World Series, the Twins, America’s Underdogs, know they have to get into the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen and win in the Metrodome.

With the exception of a few Minnesotans whose perspective has been clouded by provinciality and one too many blizzards, no one truly believes these Twins can upset the Tigers in the American League Championship Series. But during an 8-5 victory Wednesday night in Game 1, the Twins illustrated just what is possible when both objectives are met.

Thanks to the schedule, Minnesota is inside its friendly Metrodome for the first two games of the playoffs. And thanks to Gary Gaetti and Kirby Puckett, the Twins got Detroit starter Doyle Alexander out of the game in the middle of the eighth inning.

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Gaetti hit two home runs in the first two postseason at-bats of his career, and Puckett delivered a run-scoring double with one out in the eighth that tied the score at 5-5, knocked out Alexander and brought on the soft underbelly of the Tigers--their fragile bullpen.

With Puckett on second base, rookie Mike Henneman came on to walk the bases loaded--Kent Hrbek intentionally and Gaetti unintentionally. Then came Willie Hernandez, Detroit’s savior of 1984 and scourge of ‘87, to face pinch-hitter Don Baylor and right fielder Tom Brunansky.

There are reasons for Hernandez’s slip from a 32-save AL Most Valuable Player in 1984 to an 8-save scapegoat in 1987--and Baylor and Brunansky saw them first-hand. Baylor laced a 2-and-2 pitch by Hernandez into left field for a tie-breaking single, and Brunansky put the game away with a two-run double to give the Twins the first round in the best-of-seven series.

Minnesota, the maligned winner of the AL West, the winner of 13 fewer regular-season games than Detroit, can reach the World Series by playing .500 baseball during the next six games.

That the Twins are capable of doing. That, after all, is how the West was won.

Minnesota did what it had to do--take advantage of its advantages. Playing before 53,269 hysterical, towel-waving fans under the Dome, the Twins scored six runs against Alexander, previously unbeaten in a Detroit uniform.

Alexander was 9-0 as a Tiger, and Detroit had won each of his first 11 starts, but he fell behind, 4-1, after the fifth inning and blew a 5-4 lead in the eighth.

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“It was a lift to score some runs off Alexander early,” said Gaetti, who hit home runs off Alexander in the second and fifth innings. “That gave everybody a little hope. When that happens here, it usually means a good game for the Twins.”

When that happens here, the Metrodome crowd, which doesn’t need much provoking, cranks up the volume. And when that happens, the Twins can make some noise. Check Minnesota’s 1987 home record: 56-25, the best in baseball.

“The crowd is a very big part of our ballgame,” Minnesota Manager Tom Kelly said. “It was tonight.”

By the eighth inning, the Twins were in position to capitalize on the other advantage they hold over the Tigers--the bullpen. Detroit’s relief corps managed but a total of 31 saves, with Eric King leading the club with nine. Minnesota’s Jeff Reardon saved 31 games by himself--and was available for Kelly when starter Frank Viola faltered in the top of the eighth.

Entering the game with runners on second and third and no outs, Reardon gave up run-scoring sacrifice flies to Dave Bergman and Chet Lemon, enabling Detroit to take a 5-4 lead. But after that, he shut down the Tigers--retiring Darrell Evans for the final out of the eighth inning and striking out the side in the ninth.

“Reardon’s got more experience in these games,” said Henneman, referring to Reardon’s postseason run with the 1981 Montreal Expos. “He’s been there before. This is numero uno for me.”

And for King. But not for Hernandez, whose 32 saves and 1.92 earned-run average eased Detroit’s path to the 1984 World Series championship. That year, Hernandez earned the rare distinction of winning both a league’s MVP and Cy Young Awards as a relief pitcher.

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He also saved 31 games in 1985 and 24 in ’86 but plummetted to 8 saves, a 3-4 record and a 3.67 ERA in 1987.

“Horse manure,” is how Hernandez summarizes his latest season.

Tiger fans agree wholeheartedly and have made Hernandez a target of boos in Tiger Stadium. When Hernandez was hospitalized with stomach cramps last Saturday and had to miss a critical game with the Toronto Blue Jays, several Detroit reporters half-jokingly remarked that it was a break for the Tigers.

Hernandez never pitched in that series. He hasn’t pitched much at all lately, with Manager Sparky Anderson reluctant to cut the leash on his doghouse.

But he was forced to go to Hernandez Wednesday night when Henneman turned up wild, with a left-hander, Randy Bush, scheduled to bat. Of course, that forced Kelly’s hand, and Kelly brought in a right-handed pinch-hitter, Baylor, which got Hernandez into trouble.

Hernandez also failed against Brunansky, and soon, the Twins led by three runs. Afterward, Hernandez blamed a lack of consistency--in his pitch location and in the way he is used as a pitcher.

“To throw the ball as well as I did in ’84 and ‘85, even ‘86, I got to go out there every day,” Hernandez said. “Coming out of the bullpen only once a week can be disaster.”

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“I had to come in and pitch with the bases loaded--and I’d only been in there one time in two weeks. When you don’t pitch in two weeks, it’s hard to keep up your control.”

If you’re looking for the difference between the Tiger team that stomped baseball in 1984 and the 1987 cast that had to sweat until the 162nd game of the schedule, you can find it in the bullpen.

“I’ve been hearing it all year and reading it, that our bullpen is weak and there are a lot of questions about our bullpen,” Henneman said. “I heard it when I warmed uptonight. People out there were yelling, ‘Nice stopper, Nice closeryou got there.’ It’s to the point now, that it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I don’t care. . . . I think our bullpen has contributed this year. And it’s gonna do the same thing this series.”

It already has. Wednesday night, it gave unexpected life, and hope, to the longshot Minnesota Twins.

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