Long Strange Trip

King of the road: Reliever Dan Perkins put in a gutsy effort against Cleveland, and got none of the glory

Losing four straight to Texas upon returning to the Metrodome's dreary confines this past weekend took some of the shine off the Twins' first road trip of the season. But not all of it. The nine-game Central Division swing through Detroit, Cleveland, and Kansas City was a doozy, providing attentive fans with plenty of the sort of good news/bad news baseball that is likely to be the young team's stock in trade this year. The bad news was painfully familiar to fans who have bemoaned the maddening inconsistency and inflated earned run averages of the club's starting pitchers over the past half-dozen seasons: Twins starters were knocked out early in five of the games. The good news was that starting pitching be damned, the team scrapped back time and again, playing some of its most entertaining and encouraging baseball in years.

Four of the nine games on the trip--which the toddling Twins concluded with a respectable 5-4 record--were extra-inning affairs. The team pulled out a 12-inning 1-0 victory in the opener at Detroit, outlasted Cleveland in 11 innings in the second game of a soggy doubleheader marathon, and beat Kansas City in 13 innings before finally falling to the Royals in 10 innings in the trip's finale. Four games were decided by one run, and in three of the contests in which the starter was knocked out early (rookie left-hander Benj Sampson lasted a total of seven innings in his two starts), the club battled back to win. After being out-homered 11-1 during their six-game home stand to open the season, eight different Twins combined to hit 12 homers on the road, with rookie outfielder Chad Allen--who has been playing like the second coming of Dan Gladden, complete with an unsatisfactory on-base percentage--leading the way with 3. The team also stole 11 bases and showed flashes of encouraging plate discipline, drawing 33 walks.

If those offensive stats sound encouraging, they must be balanced against the fact that overall the Twins' were dismal at the plate during the nine-game stretch: Collectively, the team hit for a .238 average. The real heroes of the road trip were the members of the relief corps. Closer Rick Aguilera appeared in five games and pitched eight and two-thirds innings, picking up three victories and two saves. Right-handed set-up man Mike Trombley made six appearances and pitched nine and two-thirds innings without allowing a run.

The road trip's most unsung performance had to be right-hander Dan Perkins's mop-up work in the first game of the Cleveland doubleheader. Called on in the fourth inning after starter Brad Radke had been knocked around for five runs by the Indians' powerful lineup, Perkins pitched five shutout innings. The Twins lost the game 5-1, but the rookie's stellar relief effort gave the rest of the bullpen a much-needed breather and set the stage for the higher-profile heroics of his cohorts in the dramatic second game.

Saturday's rare day-night doubleheader in Cleveland was necessitated by a rainout of Friday's game and was played in weather that was hardly fit for football. Players justifiably despise day-nighters, in which the first game is scheduled for the early afternoon, the second for the normal night-game time slot. (In other words, it's a doubleheader for the teams but not the paying customers, who, if they want to catch both ends, must purchase two tickets.) Under the best of circumstances, such scheduling makes for an unconscionably long day at the ballpark.

By the time Indians manager Mike Hargrove sent in right-handed reliever Jerry Spradlin to start the eighth inning of the second game, Minnesota was behind 7-1, having managed just six hits off starter Jaret Wright and reliever Steve Karsay. A cold, steady rain was falling, and one might well have forgiven the Twins had they rolled over and headed back to their hotel to lick their wounds. But third baseman Brent Gates greeted Spradlin with a double. After Todd Walker struck out and Chad Allen grounded to first base, Corey Koskie doubled to right, scoring Gates. Rookie center fielder Torii Hunter worked Spradlin to a full count before drawing a walk, and Javier Valentin followed with a four-pitch walk to load the bases.

Hargrove, whose labored preparations in the batter's box earned him the nickname "The Human Rain Delay" during his playing days, appears to be something of an oafish bully, and one senses that Twins manager Tom Kelly harbors a deep personal disdain of his Cleveland counterpart. And although Hargrove's team has compiled a 46-28 record against the Twins over the past six years (while operating with one of baseball's biggest payrolls), the Cleveland manager is no match for Kelly as a strategist. Hargrove provided the latest justification for Kelly's contempt in the meaningless final game of the 1998 season; with the Twins leading the Indians 3-2 in the eighth, Matt Lawton was hit by a pitch and Paul Molitor was introduced for what was to be the final at-bat of his major league career. Cleveland had long since wrapped up another Central Division title; the Twins trailed by 20 games in the standings. Yet just as the applause for Molitor began to swell, Hargrove popped out of the Indians dugout and walked slowly to the mound to make a pitching change. It was an inexplicably crass and pointless move, and though there was plenty of satisfaction in the fact that Molitor promptly greeted reliever Doug Jones with the 3,319th hit of his career, the moment has surely not been forgotten by Kelly, or the Twins.

So it was that on Saturday night in Cleveland, with the bases loaded, two outs, and his team still trailing by five, Kelly sent in Matt Lawton as a pinch hitter for Chris Latham. Hargrove did not yet have lefty Paul Assenmacher ready in the bullpen, so he was forced to stick with Spradlin. On the other hand, Lawton was in the throes of an 0-for-15 slump. He proceeded to hit a grand slam into the right-field bleachers and pull the Twins to within one. The homer compelled Hargrove to bring in Assenmacher, who'd already toiled in the first game of the doubleheader. Denny Hocking fell behind 0-2 before drilling a single to center for his fourth hit of the game. Kelly then opted not to pinch-hit for left-handed-hitting first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, a move that was likely more strategic than a gesture of faith in the rookie; the Twins manager knew that if he brought in right-handed Ron Coomer for Mientkiewicz, Hargrove would counter with his tough sidearming righty, Steve Reed. The risk paid off, as Hocking stole second base and Mientkiewicz roped a double to the opposite field to bring home the tying run. Brent Gates then drove in the go-ahead tally with his second hit of the inning--giving him one from each side of the plate--and the Twins had staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in team history, scoring seven runs with two outs and batting around against the usually stellar Indians bullpen.

In the bottom of the ninth, Hargrove countered with a little strategy of his own, sending David Justice to the plate to pinch-hit against Aguilera. After working the count to 2-2, the Twins closer threw a belt-high fastball that Justice deposited in the right-field seats to send the game into extra innings. It was the sole blot on Aguilera's road trip, and he managed to redeem himself by retiring the next six batters he faced and hanging around long enough to get the victory after the Twins batted around again in the 11th and scored five runs. That rally was ignited once more by Lawton, who whacked a bases-loaded double off the left-field scoreboard, missing his second grand slam of the night by mere feet. Hargrove was so clearly frustrated and unprepared for the Twins' second coming that he was forced to insert yet another pitcher--righty Paul Shuey--who'd been used in the first game.

When Trombley shut down the Indians in the bottom of the 11th and the Twins' 13-8 victory put the finishing touches on more than twelve hours at the ballpark, it was tempting to conclude that we might not see a better game out of this team all year. Yet the Twins followed it up with four more close and memorable games, and they had to come home feeling pretty good. Yes, Tom Kelly is saddled with a team that's underperforming at the plate, and there are the usual concerns about starting pitching (at this rate the bullpen will be burned out by the All Star break). But for the time being at least, he's looking like a manager who's invigorated by the challenges presented by his young team.

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