What do Bud Selig and the Oakland A's have in common? Both failed to eliminate the Minnesota Twins in 2002. Behind a dominating performance from starting pitcher Brad Radke, the Twins beat Oakland 5-4 in the fifth and deciding game of the divisional playoffs on Sunday. They advanced to the American League Championship series.
Radke pitched six and two-thirds dominant innings, and the Twins survived a nausea-inducing 9th inning Oakland rally, for the chance to play the Yankee-killing Anaheim Angels for the American League pennant. The Twins not only beat a team with 103 wins, they did it with a tiny payroll, a threat of contraction hanging over their heads, and a history of mostly poor play since their World Series victory in 1991. Radke, a veteran of some truly awful Twins teams, says he thought this day might come.
"It was kind of a hope that one of these years that we were going to do something special," said Radke. "I felt a couple years ago that the talent they were bringing in was going to be good for us. We just had to wait around a few years."
On a sunny, hot afternoon in Oakland, Matthew LeCroy drove home one run and scored another as the Twins got two early runs to support Radke, who got two of Minnesota's three wins in the series. A.J. Pierzynski's two run, 9th inning homer off A's closer Billy Koch and David Ortiz' RBI double gave the Twins a comfortable 5-1 lead. But in the bottom of the ninth, A's rookie second baseman Mark Ellis hit a three-run homer against Minnesota closer Eddie Guardado to pull Oakland back within a run. Then, pinch hitter Randy Velarde singled with two outs.
"I remember I said on the airplane last night, we were flying and I said, o.k. boys, I'm going bring a bunch of extra barf bags in case anyone needs one for tomorrow's game," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "I promise you, my desk in there has barf bags on it. Well that's what it was like. It was really like that."
But ultimately, Guardado hurled a pretty good pitch to Ray Durham, who fouled out to second baseman Denny Hocking, to end the game, igniting a clubhouse champagne party.
"That's the way the game's supposed to be played in the fifth game of a series," said Gardenhire. "Great pitching matches, we got to the bullpen which has been our strength all year long. And then we finally got some late base hits late in the game to knock in some runs. They come back in the bottom and they've got the tying run on first and the winning run at the plate. That's baseball at its finest."
The Twins beat the A's at their own game -- starting pitching. Oakland aces Mark Mulder and Barry Zito pitched ok in the series, but not great. Tim Hudson bombed in both appearances. Radke's first post-season games were stellar, and Eric Milton also stymied the A's. MVP candidate Miguel Tejada finished a measly 3-for-21 at the plate, and blundered his way around the infield. The Twins, a subpar road team, were expected to flounder in Oakland, but they took two of three there. The small crowds may have helped the Twins, who drew more fans in the Metrodome in two games than the A's drew at home in three. Pierzynksi claims he would have liked a bigger audience in Oakland.
"It was disappointing, especially game five on a Sunday afternoon. I know the Raiders were playing, the 'Niners were playing, the Giants were playing, but you'd think they could pack it out."
The Twins will likely see bigger crowds in Anaheim, a hungry team that hasn't tasted the playoffs since 1986, and had never won a playoff series until knocking off the New York Yankees on Saturday.
The Angels won five more regular season games than the Twins. But Minnesota will host the first two games of the series, by virtue of winning their division, while the Angels finished second to the vanquished A's. Game 1 will be at the Metrodome tomorrow. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who fought to eliminate the Twins before the season, hasn't decided whether to attend. But Selig claims to be delighted for the Twins success.
"The rest of it, the history of what happened before, it's in the past now," said Selig.More from MPR