MINNEAPOLIS — It will be worst to first--times two--when the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves, the first teams to go from last place to league championships in one season, open the World Series tonight at the Metrodome.
"It's great. I couldn't think of a better scenario," said center fielder Kirby Puckett, the most valuable player in Minnesota's American League playoff victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.
"Last year, people picked us not to do anything, and we didn't. This year, they picked us not to do anything and we did. The same thing happened for Atlanta. Both clubs worked hard, and we deserve it."
They earned their World Series berths differently.
The Twins, who won the American League West title with relative ease, used their potent offense and strong bullpen to subdue the Blue Jays in a five-game series that ended last Sunday.
The Braves, who didn't clinch the National League West title until the 161st game of the season, silenced the Pittsburgh Pirates' bats with a pitching staff that produced three shutouts and compiled an earned-run average of 1.57. Their seven-game series ended Thursday, and their charter flight to the Twin Cities did not arrive until the predawn hours Friday.
"They can say they're rested, but we can say that we're tournament-tough," said Atlanta left-hander Charlie Leibrandt, who will start tonight in a mild surprise. "It really doesn't matter. It's a case of who goes out and sets the tone from the start, and I hope I can do that."
Despite their differences, the Twins and Braves share many characteristics. Each proved its mettle by winning three playoff games on the road, and each respects the other's accomplishments.
"They're a team that has come from nowhere, like we have, and there's a lot of excitement on both sides," said St. Paul native Jack Morris, who won Games 1 and 4 of the American League playoffs and will start for the Twins tonight. "We're two teams not picked to be here, and it's exciting to be part of it."
The Twins hope that the Braves will have difficulty tracking fly balls against the Metrodome's tent-like ceiling and will be distracted by the fans' roars in the contained space.
"Both will be a problem," Puckett said. "If we're doing something with the bats, it'll be the noise. . . . If we're hitting the ball all over the place, it'll be a tough night for the Braves. I've played eight years under the dome, and I've lost four or five fly balls. Sometimes, they're hit so high that once they go over the lights, you can't locate them until they're coming down. Hopefully, by then it will be too late."
Remembering his experiences in Minnesota while he was with the Kansas City Royals, Leibrandt called the Metrodome "probably as tough a place to play as any in baseball. . . . The Twins haven't been very kind to me."
He added: "It seems like every series I played here, one game was decided one way or the other by a missed pop-up or fly ball that was lost in the roof, and that's a lot."
The Braves' strength against the Pirates was their starting pitching, and they figure to maintain that edge over the Twins. Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox said he was unaware of Leibrandt's 7-6 record against Minnesota when he chose Leibrandt to start tonight instead of 20-game winner Tom Glavine, who started and lost Atlanta's playoff opener. Glavine will oppose Kevin Tapani on five days' rest Sunday in Game 2, with Minnesota's 20-game winner, Scott Erickson, due to pitch against Steve Avery in Game 3 Tuesday at Atlanta.
"I see no reason not to pitch Charlie," said Cox, who is managing in his first Series. "We're going to use four guys anyway. He pitched real good against Pittsburgh, and he's a 15-game winner. . . . We think he's throwing very well."
John Smoltz, the only right-hander among the Braves' four starters, will start Game 4, and Kelly is expected to come back with Morris on three days' rest, as he did in the league championship series.
Morris wasn't dominant in either of his playoff victories, and Tapani gave up eight earned runs in a defeat and a no-decision. Erickson showed no improvement over his shaky late-season form, giving up two runs in four-plus innings in Game 3.
Minnesota's salvation against Toronto was its bullpen, which didn't yield an earned run in 18 1/3 innings. Rick Aguilera had three saves, set up by Carl Willis and David West.
The Braves' bullpen is led by Alejandro Pena, who has converted all 14 of his save opportunities, including playoffs, since he was acquired from the New York Mets.
No matter who pitches for Atlanta, however, Kelly dreads sending his hitters to the plate.
"Avery did what, pitched 16 1/3 innings and gave up nothing, broke the record (for consecutive scoreless playoff innings)? Smoltz, Glavine--ai, ai, ai!" Kelly said, shaking his head. "We just left the frying pan and we're in the fire now. We thought Toronto's pitching was nasty, and these guys are even nastier."
Minnesota's offense, though, is capable of giving the Braves nightmares. The Twins hit a league-leading .280 during the season and .276 in the playoffs, led by Puckett's .429 average and six RBIs. The Twins will suffer, though, when the series moves to Atlanta and they lose designated hitter Chili Davis. Davis led Minnesota with 29 homers and 93 RBIs and batted .294 against Toronto.
He will strengthen Minnesota's bench, though. Mike Pagliarulo, who hit the winning pinch-home run for the Twins in Game 3 of the playoffs, also will be a reserve, as will Gene Larkin, a .286 hitter who has tendinitis in a knee.
Cox will use Lonnie Smith as the designated hitter tonight, with Brian Hunter in left field despite limited outfield experience. Cox said if he used Hunter as the designated hitter and sent in a pinch-runner for first baseman Sid Bream, as he often does, he would lose the designated hitter when Hunter moved to first.