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Twins Get on the Right Track

Baseball: Despite three errors in the first two innings and falling behind by four runs, they beat A's, 7-5.

October 02, 2002|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — The Minnesota Twins withstood baseball's attempt to kill them off last winter, they overcame the loss of three of their top starting pitchers to injury for more than two months each, and they defied the limitations of their $40-million payroll to run away with the American League Central division title.

What could be so daunting, then, about a horrific playoff start in which they committed three errors and allowed an infield fly to drop in the first two innings, suffering a case of playoff jitters their own manager called "comical," and spotted Oakland Athletics' ace Tim Hudson a four-run lead?

Showing a refuse-to-lose resilience that would have made the 1995 Seattle Mariners proud, the Twins roared back to beat the A's, 7-5, in the AL division series opener before 34,853 in Network Associates Coliseum on Tuesday, breathing life into their upset hopes and backing the favored A's into a must-win corner today.

Catcher A.J. Pierzynski had four hits, including an RBI triple in the seventh, third baseman Corey Koskie sparked the comeback with a two-run homer in the third and knocked in the go-ahead run in the sixth, and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz homered in the sixth, as Minnesota won the first game of the best-of-five series.

The wrong-way Twins--four players and General Manager Terry Ryan took the BART train heading for Richmond, Calif., instead of Oakland on Tuesday morning--also got superb relief from left-handers Johan Santana, J.C. Romero and closer Eddie Guardado, who combined for four scoreless innings behind starter Brad Radke.

"We embarrassed ourselves for the first two innings, not catching the ball, and it looked a little bit like folly," Twin Manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We came out a little tighter than I thought we would.... Then Koskie hit the home run, and everything fell back into place."

Koskie's two-run shot off Hudson in the third made it 5-3, and Mientkiewicz's leadoff homer in the sixth made it 5-4. With one out, Oakland Manager Art Howe pulled Hudson, even though the right-hander had thrown only 77 pitches, in favor of left-hander Ted Lilly, who had limited left-handers to two hits in 24 at-bats since being acquired in a trade with the New York Yankees in July.

Lilly proceeded to give up three consecutive hits--a single to the left-handed Pierzynski, a single to Luis Rivas and an RBI double to the left-handed Jacque Jones, and the score was tied, 5-5. Koskie's RBI groundout made it 6-5, and Pierzynski's RBI triple in the seventh made it 7-5.

"This team won't quit," Mientkiewicz said. "I know a lot of teams say the same thing, but it's true. To play as bad as we did the first two innings and to be down by only two runs, it motivated us."

So did center fielder Torii Hunter, who blasted his teammates after the second inning for making a shambles of their first playoff game since 1991, committing two throwing errors, a fielding error and letting Scott Hatteberg's second inning popup between the mound and first drop for an RBI single.

The mistakes, an aberration for a team that led the AL in defense and committed three errors in only three games this season, led to four unearned runs and a 5-1 deficit.

"He came in screaming, 'We waited our whole lives for this, let's go!' " Mientkiewicz said. "I ran to the bathroom, because when he gets mad, I run the other way. But he had every right to do it. Something had to be said."

No one felt worst than Mientkiewicz, who took the blame for not catching Hatteberg's infield fly. Mientkiewicz wore a microphone for the television broadcast, but there probably weren't enough bleeps to cover his reaction.

"Hopefully, they have a good editing crew because I said some things you can't say on TV," Mientkiewicz said. "If I could have dug a hole in the dirt and jumped in, I would have. I couldn't believe what was happening to us.... You want to win, but you don't want to embarrass yourselves doing it."

Hunter, who doubled and scored on Michael Cuddyer's RBI double in the second, apologized for his rant, but he had no regrets.

"I was just trying to pump them up," Hunter said. "I saw a lot of heads hanging."

The Twins survived some harrowing late-inning moments before sending the A's to their fifth straight playoff loss at home, dating to Game 2 of the 2000 division series.

With two on and one out in the sixth, Santana struck out most-valuable-player candidate Miguel Tejada with a nasty slider and got cleanup batter Eric Chavez, who had RBI singles in the first and second innings, on a grounder back to the mound, preserving a 6-5 lead.

Tejada had a chance to tie the score with a homer in the eighth but, with a runner on first and two out, he struck out on Romero's inside slider. The A's put two on with two out in the ninth off Guardado, who had given up a dramatic three-run homer to Tejada in the bottom of the ninth inning of a 7-5 loss on Sept. 1.

But after stepping off the mound several times to gain his composure, Guardado got pinch-hitter Adam Piatt to fly out to left on a full-count pitch to end the game.

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