Twins Playing It All for One, One for All

The Minnesota Twins are where they are today, two victories shy of the 1991 World Series championship, because they are cliche killers, adage bashers.

They win because they don't know their limitations and haven't begun to figure out how to play within them.

Mike Pagliarulo, .236 career hitter, beats the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League playoffs with a pinch-hit home run in the 10th inning.

Greg Gagne, No. 9 man in the lineup and not without good reason, wins Game 1 of the World Series with a three-run home run off Charlie Leibrandt.

Scott Leius, one year removed from a .229 season in Portland, wins Game 2 with a tie-breaking home run against Tom Glavine, the National League's Cy Young consensus favorite.

These Twins keep reaching for the sky and, despite the Teflon ceiling covering their heads, they succeed in touching it. How do you spell "champion"? The Twins go for K-N-O-B-L-A-U-C-H. Or W-I-L-L-I-S. Who will win the next game for them? Who do you want?

"We're a team and we play like it," said Kevin Tapani, the triumphant pitcher in Minnesota's 3-2 victory over Atlanta Sunday night. "Our stars aren't stars, we don't rely on any one player. . . .

"It would be easy to jump on Puck's (Kirby Puckett's) back and ride him all the way, but guys like Leius, Pags and Gagne keep stepping up."

The Twins have a saying for it, according to Tapani: "Go out and grab your moment."

Actually, the Twins have two sayings for it, according to Tapani: "All year long the guys have told me, 'If you stick around long enough, something good's going to happen to you.' "

Amid this hurricane of overreaching madness, Tapani offers an eyeful of realism. On this team he's considered crazy, because he's one of the rare Twins who isn't.

Ask Tapani how he pitched out of Sunday's eighth inning, with runners on first and third, one out, and Ron Gant and David Justice coming to bat. "I don't know," Tapani said with pure straight-faced honesty.

Ask Tapani if he had raised his level of pitching because he was matched in Game 2 against Glavine and his 20-11, 2.55 regular-season credentials. "It would be nice if you could do that," Tapani replied, "but it doesn't work that way. I just try to get our guys off the field as quickly as possible and get them hitting again."

Ask Tapani how he's progressed from throw-in in the 1989 Frank Viola trade to 16-game winner in 1991 and you can predict Tapani's response from 90 feet away.

Stick around long enough and something good will happen.

Stuck seemed to be the operative word when Tapani was jettisoned from the promise of a lucrative career within the New York Mets' organization and dumped at the doorstep of the Metrodome, part of the five-player package that sent Viola to the National League. From first-to-worst--that was the passage booked by Tapani, David West, Rick Aguilera, Tim Drummond and Jack Savage on the afternoon of July 31, 1989.

"I never looked at it that way," Tapani said. "In my case, I wasn't really leaving a winning team for a losing team because I was still in the minor leagues. I was only with the Mets briefly (three games in early 1989) and actually, I was pretty happy for the step up. I was getting the opportunity to play at the big league level."

Sooner in the Twins Cities than in the big city.

"Obviously, with the starting pitching the Mets had, they were not about to go with a rookie," Tapani said. "It took a Cy Young Award winner and a World Series hero to break into their rotation. I'd have pitched long relief there. Maybe."

By April of 1990, Tapani was a fixture in the Minnesota rotation, primarily because Minnesota had a rotation in dire need of fixing. At 12-8 in 1990, Tapani was the Twins' winningest pitcher. At 4.07, his earned-run average was the best in the rotation.

In 1991, with the addition of Jack Morris and the arrival of Scott Erickson, Tapani was able to slip down into the No. 3 starter's role, a more comfortable fit. In 1987, the Twins won the World Series with two qualified starting pitchers, Viola and Bert Blyleven, and an automatic Game 3 throwaway, Les (Less) Straker. Imagine, Minnesotans wondered then, what might be accomplished with three able bodies.

The Atlanta Braves are finding out.

Tapani was the only Twin pitcher to lose to Toronto in the playoffs and he appeared shaky again at Sunday's outset, serving up a quick run in the second inning on a single by Justice, a double by Sid Bream and a sacrifice fly by Brian Hunter. He required assists in the third and fourth innings from Kent Hrbek, who tackled/tagged Gant out at first base, and Dan Gladden, who dove to deny Bream down the left-field line. In the fifth, he surrendered the tying run on a double by Greg Olson and a sacrifice fly by Rafael Belliard.

But Tapani stuck around. He got the Twins to the eighth--and critically, through the eighth. With two bunts and an infield dribbler putting Braves on first and third, Tapani straightened up and retired Gant and Justice, Atlanta's third and cleanup hitters, on a pop foul to the catcher and a fly ball to left.

Good things proceeded to happen. In the bottom of the eighth, Leius cleared the left-field plexiglass and Tapani had the lead again. In the top of the ninth, Aguilera stepped to the mound and three outs later, Tapani had one less career World Series victory than Viola.

How does the trade look now?

"Every year is different," Tapani said, feet still planted firmly. "The Twins lost a great pitcher and some things have happened to the Mets. The way things turned out, I think both teams are happy with it."

The Twins know no limit to their happiness.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°