Only one team stands between the Minnesota Twins and a spot in baseball's World Series. At the Metrodome tonight the Twins will take on the Anaheim Angels in the opening game of the American League Championship Series. The winner of the best-of-seven series will face either the St. Louis Cardinals or Giants in baseball's fall classic.
There was some surprise in baseball circles when the Twins eliminated the Oakland A's from the playoffs on Sunday. There was even more surprise the day before when the Angels eliminated the New York Yankees.
It's been five years since any team other than the Yankees represented the American League in the World Series. So, a league championship between the Twins and Angels might seem doubly surprising. But Anaheim Manager Mike Scioscia says it shouldn't be.
"People in the media and maybe some fans might think it's unlikely. But if you saw the way the two clubs progressed all year, I think you realize the talent and the quality of both ballclubs. So, however people might look at it as unlikely, I don't look at it like that. I know the Twins are an outstanding baseball club and I feel that we are, too. And I feel that both teams are deserving to be where they are right now," Sciosia said.
Being in the league championship holds special significance for the Twins, who were nearly eliminated before the season started. It took a court ruling to block the baseball commissioner's plan to shrink the major leagues by disbanding the Twins and Montreal Expos.
The Twins are a team of young players, most of whom came up through the minor leagues together. The threat of contraction helped center fielder Torii Hunter realize how close he feels to his teammates.
"He's the first guy to pull a prank on anybody, to get Ortiz with an exploding golf ball, to do whatever."
- A.J. Pierzynski on manager Ron Gardenhire
"It was tough. During this past off season, they was talking about contraction. And I grew up with these guys. Then they were talking about a dispersal draft. And I couldn't imagine Guzman and Doug and Jacque and all those guys on different teams and I'm playing against all those guys all on account of contraction," Hunter said.
Only a couple of Twins had ever been in the playoffs before last week. But first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz says at the end of a long season the playoffs bring this young team more exhilaration than nervousness.
"It's kind of like us against the world, so to speak. But this is what it's all about. Like I said, no one should be feeling any pressure, this is the fun part. The hard part's the grind throughout the 162 days. This is the fun part. You enjoy this. Everyone keeps making a big deal out of 'Are you going to put pressure on yourself?' No. This is what it's all about. This is the time to look back, see all the people in the stands, smile, and feel like 'You know what? We've come a long way,'" he said.
The Twins say their first-year manager, Ron Gardenhire, will help the team enjoy its ride. Gardenhire succeeded Tom Kelly last spring, after 11 years on Kelly's coaching staff.
Catcher A.J. Pierzynski says the players had gotten to know Gardenhire well during his coaching years and were excited by his promotion to manager.
"Everyone couldn't have been happier for him. He was a perfect guy. Not that the other guys they interviewed weren't. It just seemed that Gardy was the right fit. He keeps us loose. He's the first guy to pull a prank on anybody, to get Ortiz with an exploding golf ball, to do whatever. He has a great way with people and he handles us very well," according to Pierzynski.
The exploding golf ball was a spring training prank that helped set a relaxed tone for Gardenhire's tenure. In Oakland Sunday, Gardenhire was more concerned about baseballs exploding off the A's bats in the ninth inning.
Gardenhire and his team watched nervously as relief pitcher Eddie Guardado let a four-run lead shrink to one run before getting the game's final out.
"I wanted to kill Eddie, basically. I really did. At the time, I'm looking at him going 'What is he doing?' and my pitching coach is saying 'Well, he's just rushing a little bit.' I said 'Rushing? This is taking forever, it's not rushing.' So, I did want to kill him but we got through it," Gardenhire said.
Guardado says the game was a learning experience for him. He says having one playoff series under their belts makes the Twins better equipped for the league championship against the Angels, who finished second to Oakland in the American League's western division. Tonight's starting pitchers are Joe Mays for the Twins and Kevin Appier for the Angels.