Until Sunday, Scott Leius' most noteworthy contribution to the Twins' October effort was watching Mike Pagliarulo bat for him in Game 3 of the playoffs and hit the winning home run against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Leius and Pagliarulo, who platoon at third base, now each have the distinction of getting the decisive hit in a postseason victory.
Facing Atlanta left-hander Tom Glavine, who had recovered from a rocky start to pitch well, Leius lined the first pitch of the eighth inning over the plexiglass in left field to give Minnesota to a 3-2 victory before 55,145 and a 2-0 World Series lead over the Braves.
Rick Aguilera got the final three outs to preserve the victory for Kevin Tapani and send the Twins to Atlanta for Games 3, 4 and 5, if necessary. Of the 41 teams that have taken 2-0 leads, 31 (76%) have won the Series, including the last four cases.
"This is exactly what we were hoping for, but we're not getting too excited about it yet because we've got some tough pitchers to face there," said Aguilera, who has saved five of the Twins' six postseason victories.
"The fans were a great help here. Their enthusiasm really pumped us up and got us going."
Leius was hoping merely to get a scoring threat going when he came up to bat in the eighth inning. "I was trying to get on base with a walk, a hit, whatever," said Leius, who batted .286 with five homers in 109 games this season. "It was a good pitch, a pitch I could hit hard.
"I don't know what I was thinking. I was trying to touch the bases and make sure that got covered."
The Twins have covered all the bases with Leius, a right-handed hitting rookie, and Pagliarulo, a left-handed hitting veteran. Together, the two are seven for 25 with two home runs and four RBIs in the playoffs and Series.
"I don't consider us rivals. I was a big fan of Mike's when he was with the Yankees," said Leius, who grew up in the New York City suburb of Mamaroneck. "I was a die-hard Yankee fan. Not any more."
Glavine gave up a two-run home run to Chili Davis in the first inning but retired 15 in a row after he yielded a leadoff walk to Kent Hrbek in the second inning. Twin Manager Tom Kelly was especially impressed by Glavine's change-up, which had the Twins flailing miserably.
"The same swings we used to watch other guys take off (Frank) Viola, the same swings our guys were taking off Glavine. What a pitch," Kelly said. "Now you see it, now you don't."
Leius saw Glavine twice before their eighth-inning matchup, grounding into a double play in the second inning and going on on a fly to center field in the fifth.
"Glavine pitched a great game," Leius said. "He was hitting his spots with his pitches and changing speeds well. He pitched very well."
But he didn't pitch well enough to counteract the Twins' dome advantage. They have won all six World Series games they have played at home, nine of 10 games in postseason. Home teams have won 19 of the last 25 Series games.
"It's very frustrating. I pitched well enough to win these last two games, and I don't have anything to show for it," Glavine said, referring to his 1-0 loss to the Pirates last Monday in Game 5 of the NL playoffs.
"It's a frustrating situation to be in, down 2-0 when we were hoping for a split. Our backs are against the wall, and we have to battle back.
"We can't worry about coming back here for Games 6 and 7. We have to worry about going to Atlanta and winning there."
They might have won Sunday if not for a bizarre play in the third inning with the Braves trailing, 2-1, with runners on first and third.
Lonnie Smith had reached base with one out when Leius bobbled his grounder to third base, and after Terry Pendleton flied out to center, Ron Gant chopped a single into left field. Smith went to third and Gant rounded first before stopping. Seeing Gant off the bag, first baseman Kent Hrbek called for the ball from Tapani, who had retrieved the throw from left fielder Dan Gladden. Hrbek swiped the bag with his hand and got Gant on the right thigh, appearing to lift Gant's leg off the bag. First base umpire Drew Coble called Gant out, and he threw his helmet in protest.
"I caught the ball and he came back into the base hard," Hrbek said. "I kept my glove on his foot and his momentum carried him off the bag."
Coble agreed, saying, Gant "was never set at all."
Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox contended that Hrbek had pushed Gant off the base but didn't use that play as an excuse for his team's defeat.
"We could have won the game with a clutch hit here or there," he said, "so you can't blame the ballpark or the umpires."
The Metrodome's tent-like ceiling was a factor in the first inning, when right fielder David Justice crashed into second baseman Mark Lemke and forced Gladden's pop-up out of Lemke's glove. A walk to Chuck Knoblauch put runners on first and second, but Glavine seemed about to escape a big inning when Kirby Puckett grounded into a double play, begun on a backhand stab by third baseman Pendleton. But Davis hit an 0-and-1 pitch over the left field fence for a 2-0 Minnesota lead.
The Braves scored in the second inning on a single by Justice, a double by Sid Bream and Brian Hunter's sacrifice fly, then pulled even in the fifth on a double by Greg Olson, a ground out and Rafael Belliard's fly to right.
Tapani teetered in the eighth after the Braves sandwiched two infield hits around a sacrifice to put runners on first and third with one out, but he retired Gant on a pop-up behind the plate and Justice flied out to left field.
"It was his game to win or lose," Kelly said of his decision to let Tapani face Justice. "He pitched a gutsy ballgame."
"I felt better before this game than I did in the ALCS," said Tapani, who lost the second game of the Twins' series against the Blue Jays and got no decision in the fifth and final game. "I guess I had less apprehension, having been through it a little bit.
"I thought it was an outstanding ballgame. I'm glad I was playing in it and not sitting and watching it."
* THE BIG PLAY: Hrbek's tag/tackle of Gant in the third inning had just about everything but the body slam. C12
* NEWHAN: A designated hitter in Minneapolis, but not in Atlanta? It's absurd, says Manager Tom Kelly. C12
* BILL RUSSELL: In a move likely to groom him as Lasorda successor, he will manage Albuquerque next season. C13