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Baseball: Twins, targeted for elimination last winter, instead eliminate A's in Game 5 and qualify to face Angels in ALCS.

October 07, 2002|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — They were no-names in 1999, ridiculed as a bunch of double-A and triple-A players masquerading as big leaguers, baseball's poster children for why the sport couldn't survive in a small market with a horrible stadium and fading fan base.

They took their lumps, losing 97 games in 1999 and 93 games in 2000, and matured into legitimate contenders in 2001, only to be put on Commissioner Bud Selig's contraction hit list last winter.

Now look at the Minnesota Twins: They're still no-names, but they'll provide the opponent for the Angels in the American League championship series after completing a stunning upset of the Oakland Athletics Sunday.

Catcher A.J. Pierzynski's two-run home run broke open a tight game in the top of the ninth, and closer Eddie Guardado survived a tense and turbulent bottom of the ninth, and the Twins held off the A's, 5-4, in the decisive Game 5 of the AL division series before 32,146 in Network Associates Coliseum.

The Twins, overcome by equal parts relief and jubilation, dog-piled Guardado on the mound and then took their raucous celebration to the visiting clubhouse, where, amid popping corks and champagne showers, there seemed to be an underlying message to the commissioner: Hey Bud, let's party.

"Just turn on the television and watch the team you tried to get rid of," Twin left fielder Jacque Jones said when asked what he'd say to Selig. "You can't get rid of the Twins. Selig tried it. The A's were up, 2-1, in the series, and they tried it. We just never quit, and now we're one step away from the World Series."

They were one step away from tripping and falling flat on their faces Sunday. Pierzynski followed Dustan Mohr's leadoff walk in the ninth with a two-run homer to right field off Oakland closer Billy Koch, his first homer since the day before the All-Star break, to turn a 2-1 lead into a 4-1 lead, and Cristian Guzman's single and stolen base and David Ortiz's two-out RBI double made it 5-1.

But Guardado, the Minnesota left-hander, gave up two hits and a three-run home run to Mark Ellis that made it 5-4, and the A's seemed on the verge of the kind of magical comeback that marked their 20-game win streak in August and September.

Guardado got Terrence Long to fly to center for the second out, but Randy Velarde singled to center. Greg Myers, who entered the game as a catcher in the top of the ninth, came to the plate before A's Manager Art Howe and several coaches realized Ray Durham, and not Myers, should be hitting.

Durham then lifted a high foul ball well beyond the first base bag, but second baseman Denny Hocking ranged over to make the catch, sealing Minnesota's first trip to the championship series since 1991.

"A.J.'s home run stuck a dagger in them," Twin center fielder Torii Hunter said. "But man, Ellis' home run almost gave me a heart attack."

The best-of-seven AL championship series, which opens Tuesday night in the Metrodome, probably is causing a few palpitations over at the network office. No New York Yankees, the glamour team from the media capital of the world. No Oakland Athletics, the upstarts with the three great young pitchers and MVP-candidate shortstop. And no great subplot of Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi facing his old teammates.

"I tell you what, it's TV's worst nightmare, the Twins against the Angels," Hocking said.

Get over it, say the Twins.

"I think the country wants to see two low-budget teams win," Hunter said. "Everyone I talk to is tired of the Yankees--I'm tired of them--they've got the salary, the big names, and they can play. We're just making minimum wage, but we're doing the job."

The combined payrolls of the Angels ($62 million) and Twins ($40 million) don't come close to the Yankees' $135-million payroll, but that doesn't mean it won't be an entertaining series.

The Twins and Angels are very similar--both teams are scrappy on offense, fundamentally sound and aggressive on the basepaths. Their starting pitching is solid, if not spectacular, their bullpens are deep and their defenses sound.

"I think the networks will be proud to have us and the Angels in the ALCS," Twin Manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We're both teams that get after it."

And neither was expected to be here. It should be interesting to see which team out-underdogs the other.

"We're sick and tired of hearing we can't hit left-handed pitching, we have no power, our pitching staff is unproven, we're too young, we don't have this or that," Twin first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "All I know is we're moving on."

The Twins are moving on because they got a superb start Sunday from ace Brad Radke, who limited a potent A's lineup to one run and six hits in 6 2/3 innings, striking out four and walking none.

And because Hocking, making his first start of the postseason, hit a clutch, two-out RBI single to center off A's left-hander Mark Mulder in the second inning, and Matthew LeCroy followed Guzman's double in the third with an RBI single to center.

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