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Twins Continue Beating Odds, and Angels

Baseball: Despite troubles, Minnesota in thick of wild-card race after 6-2 victory.

September 07, 1996|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MINNEAPOLIS — They've gone all season without one of baseball's best players, outfielder Kirby Puckett. The ace of their staff, Rick Aguilera, missed the first two months because of a wrist injury.

They have no real closer, no legitimate power threat, and even before Puckett was sidelined because of glaucoma in his right eye, few expected the Minnesota Twins, who tied Toronto for the worst record in baseball last season, to finish better than fourth in the American League Central.

Now look at them. A 6-2 victory over the Angels in front of 13,006 in the Metrodome Friday night moved the Twins (71-70) to within 4 1/2 games of the Chicago White Sox in the wild-card race, which begs the question: Just what in the name of Hubert H. Humphrey is going on around here?

"We're kind of sneaking up on people," said second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who is among league leaders in average (.340), runs (123), triples (11) and stolen bases (38). "If we win a wild-card berth it would be one of the best stories of the year, because no one expected us to win anything."

The Twins rank 13th in the league in home runs and 11th in team earned-run average, but they also rank third in batting, second in doubles, first in triples, and fourth in batting with runners in scoring position. And, like Friday night, they seem to get just enough pitching to remain competitive.

Brad Radke (9-14) retired the first 13 batters and finished with a complete-game five-hitter and career-high 10 strikeouts, improving his career record to 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA against the Angels, and the Twins wore down the Angels with their rat-a-tat-tat attack.

Twelve of their 13 hits off Chuck Finley (13-14) were singles, and four of those never left the infield. The Twins broke a 1-1 tie on Pat Meares' two-run single in the seventh and added three in the eighth, two coming on Rich Becker's double.

"I don't know if it's good for baseball when a .500 team is thinking about the playoffs in September," said designated hitter Paul Molitor, who had two hits to bring his career total to 2,989. "But this has been a rewarding year. We've had to dig and scrape and keep pushing. It's a fun team to play on."

The Twins may be one of baseball's more stunning stories, but not to the Angels, who have lost seven in a row to them.

Finley kept the Angels in Friday night's game until the seventh, when a key full-count curveball to Knoblauch with runners on second and third and two outs went for ball four instead of strike three. Meares followed with his single for two runs and a 3-1 lead.

"That," pitching coach Joe Coleman said in disgust, "was a . . . strike."

Finley watched replays and still couldn't believe umpire Ted Barrett's call.

"You can sit there and think, 'First base open, I'll probably throw something in the dirt,' " Finley said. "I think I surprised two of them [Knoblauch and Barrett]. Looking back, I wish I would have raised a little more hell."

Said Knoblauch: "That was one of those where you take it, hold your breath and hope he calls it a ball."

The Angels scored in the fifth inning on Jorge Fabregas' RBI single and in the ninth on Darin Erstad's inside-the-park home run.

Finley went the distance, throwing 131 pitches.

"You go out there so many times and think sooner or later things are going to turn around," Finley said. "But it's like Chinese torture sometimes, like water dripping on a tin can--dink, dink, dink . . . but that's a grind we all face sometimes."

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