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AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

Striking Appearance

Baseball: Milton's no-hitter against the outmanned Angels late in the '99 season is considered a turning point in the fortunes of the Twins.

October 11, 2002|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Darin Erstad's most enduring memory of the no-hitter Minnesota Twin left-hander Eric Milton threw against the Angels on Sept. 11, 1999, wasn't Milton's last pitch of the game, a fastball he blew by Jeff DaVanon for strike three. It was his first pitch.

"I remember watching DaVanon swing for about 15 minutes in the on-deck circle before the game," said Erstad, whose Angels will oppose Milton and the Twins in Game 3 of the American League championship series tonight at Edison Field.

"Then, on his first swing against Milton, he almost fell over. I don't think it would have mattered who played that day, because Milton was lights out."

Actually, it did matter who played that day. More precisely, it mattered who didn't play.

With the start of that Saturday game pushed to 11 a.m. to accommodate a Minnesota-Louisiana Monroe football game in the Metrodome that night, interim Angel Manager Joe Maddon went with a starting lineup--DaVanon, Orlando Palmeiro, Todd Greene, Troy Glaus, Steve Decker, Matt Luke, Bret Hemphill, Trent Durrington and Andy Sheets--that looked more suited for a Cactus League split-squad game.

This was the final month of a disastrous 70-92 season for the Angels, one in which they were picked to win the American League West, only to collapse amid a flurry of clubhouse bickering that got Manager Terry Collins fired in early September and led to the dismissal of General Manager Bill Bavasi later that month.

The Angels, free of the turmoil that consumed them in the final days of Collins' tenure, won five of their first seven games under Maddon, including a win over Minnesota ace Brad Radke on Friday night, Sept. 10.

With the early game time Saturday and a number of eager September call-ups on the bench, Maddon thought it would be a good time to start the kids en masse against Milton, a second-year big leaguer who began the game with a 6-11 record.

But a lineup that included five players who spent significant time in the minor leagues that year and one who was hurt for most of the season flailed away at Milton's less-than-baffling offerings, showing little or no discipline at the plate.

Milton, relying almost exclusively on a fastball that topped out at 92 mph, had 13 strikeouts, the most in his career. He walked two and didn't give up anything close to a hit in the 7-0 victory. Milton threw 18 first-pitch strikes and had seven 0-and-2 counts.

What's more, not one Angel regular--Mo Vaughn, Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds, Garret Anderson, Gary DiSarcina or Erstad--was asked to even loosen up for a possible pinch-hit appearance.

"All of the regulars were in shut-down mode," Salmon said. "Everybody on the bench was laughing and goofing around. We weren't even in game mode."

Some thought Milton's no-hitter should have come with an asterisk--after all, it came against a lineup of no-hitters. But to this day, Maddon, the Angel bench coach, has no regrets.

"It was the right thing to do at the time," Maddon said during Thursday's off-day workout. "It was a good time to get everyone involved, but we ran into a hot pitcher that day. People have different perceptions, but it was a developmental issue, and it didn't work out. But if we had gotten one hit, would that have made a difference? I don't think so."

What Maddon couldn't have predicted at the time was how Milton's no-hitter would galvanize the Twins. Like the Angels, Minnesota took its lumps in 1999, going 63-97, but unlike the Angels, the low-budget Twins lost with a group of kids who belonged in double-A and triple-A and were being force-fed to the big leagues.

Though there was talent--in the lineup for Milton's no-hitter were outfielders Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones, third baseman Corey Koskie and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who went on to become key players for Minnesota's AL Central championship team this season--the Twins were in far over their heads.

They played before tiny home crowds, and what little national recognition they received was negative; the focus was on their $15-million payroll, the 17 rookies on the roster and their abysmal play. "You're just trying to get through the season without anybody getting killed," Twin Manager Ron Gardenhire, then the team's third-base coach, recalled of 1999.

But Milton's no-hitter lent some legitimacy to their season. All of a sudden, the Twins were the lead story on "SportsCenter," their jubilant celebration with Milton replayed at the top of every sports highlight show.

"It was the first time something good was happening for us," Hunter said. "That was big. That was a major league moment.... That was our start, right there."

The Twins endured more growing pains in 2000, going 69-93, but matured into division contenders in 2001 and champions in 2002. Many point to Milton's no-hitter as providing the springboard to that success.

"When something special like that happens to a club, it seems like it picks up the whole organization," Radke said. "That was 1999, and it definitely picked us up. Most of these guys were just starting out. They were just coming together then, so it helped. I definitely think it helped out a lot of the younger guys."

Especially Milton, who went from a promising pitcher in 1999 to one of the game's best left-handers in 2002. Milton has gone 41-26 over the last three seasons and has a 5-2 record and 2.64 earned-run average in nine starts against the Angels.

"That did a lot for my confidence," Milton said of the no-hitter. "That was right after I developed my slider. I had four pitches in the arsenal and could go on from there."

And off he went.

"He's one of the best left-handers around," Erstad said. "He throws 95 mph up in the zone, he has a great breaking ball and a great arm angle on his fastball."

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