How The 1987 Minnesota Twins Won The AL West

It been nearly twenty years since the good people of the Twin Cities had experienced postseason baseball. It had been a little longer—22 years—since they had reached the World Series. And they had never seen their franchise win it all. The 1987 Minnesota Twins changed all of that with an improbable run to a World Series title.

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There was no evidence coming in that 1987 would be a special season. A .500 finish in 1984 was the only time in the decade the Twins hadn’t finished with a losing record. That included a 71-91 season in 1986. Tom Kelly took over the managerial reins in the final 23 games of that lost year and would become a franchise legend.

Minnesota moved decisively in the offseason. They acquired closer Jeff Reardon in a six-player deal with the Montreal Expos. They picked up outfielder Dan Gladden from San Francisco. By themselves, these trades weren’t game-changers. Reardon saved 31 games—high for the era—but still finished with a 4.48 ERA. Gladden stole 25 bases, but his overall offensive production was modest. But the deals did indicate that the Twins were serious about winning.

The old Metrodome was a haven for the long ball and the offense was built on hitting home runs. First baseman Kent Hrbek went deep 34 times, drove in 90 runs and posted an on-base percentage of .385. On the infield’s opposite corner, Gary Gaetti hit 31 homers and had 109 RBI. Rightfielder Tom Brunansky hit 32 more bombs, drove in 85 runs and his OBP was .352.

And no one was more productive than one of the most beloved players in Minnesota Twins history. Kirby Puckett’s OBP was .367. He hit 28 homers, drove in 99 runs and scored 96 more. He played a sterling centerfield to top it off.

Minnesota’s middle infield wasn’t productive on offense though second baseman Steve Lombardozzi and shortstop Greg Gagne were fundamentally sound on defense. They fit their roles well in an offense that had enough firepower to rank fifth in the American League in runs scored.

The pitching staff had a legitimate ace in 17-game winner Frank Viola, who also finished with an ERA of 2.90. Bert Blyleven, a future Hall of Famer, was 36-years-old and his ERA was 4.01, but he still won 15 games. Above all though, Viola and Blyleven were workhorses. They combined to start 71 games and pitch 518 innings. On a staff woefully short of depth, it was invaluable.

Lee Straker, Mike Smithson and 42-year-old knuckleballer Joe Niekro filled out the rotation, but not particularly well. Straker was respectable, with a 4.37 ERA in his 26 starts, but Smithson and Niekro’s ERAs were in the 6 neighborhood. In the bullpen, Juan Berengeur was respectable, with a 3.94 ERA and he logged 112 innings. But he wasn’t a shutdown guy and along with Reardon was the best the Twins had in relief.

Minnesota opened the season 7-2, including taking five of six games from the Oakland A’s. For the rest of the spring, it was a slow walk backward. They were still 13-9 at the end of April, but when they began play against the stronger AL East in May the result was thirteen losses in 21 games and a 21-22 record on Memorial Day. The Twins were five games back of the Kansas City Royals and in third place.

The schedule still had Minnesota against the AL East coming out of the holiday weekend and they got it going with a sweep of Milwaukee (an American League team prior to 1998) and took two of three from eventual AL East champ Detroit (the AL Central did not exist until MLB went to a three-division alignment in 1994).

In June, the Twins ripped off a 14-4 stretch that included sweeping the Royals in the Metrodome. In Monday’s opener, Gene Larkin ripped a bases-loaded triple in the seventh to break a 2-2 tie. On Tuesday, Gladden had three hits, Puckett two more and Niekro pitched well into the seventh inning. Minnesota won 5-2. In the series finale on Wednesday, after falling behind 3-zip, Blyleven recovered to pitch eight strong innings. In the bottom of the eighth, Minnesota accepted a gift—after two walks loaded the bases, a three-base error by the Royals cleared them and tied the score. Larkin won it in the 10th with an RBI single.

The Twins moved into first place and took a 4 ½ game lead by June 25. They gave some of the lead back by losing seven of eight out of the KC series, part of an 18-game stretch leading into the All-Star break where they went 7-11. But Minnesota still led the AL West by two games, with a 49-40 record at the midway point. Oakland, Kansas City, the California Angels and Seattle Mariners were all in close pursuit, each within 3 ½ games.

Minnesota hosted Oakland in a key four-game series in early August and the Twins offense absolutely unloaded. Hrbek and catcher Tim Laudner each homered in the Thursday night opener, Puckett drove in three runs and Viola pitched seven solid innings in a 9-4. They dropped nine more runs the next night, starting with four in the first. Hrbek homered again, Gagne had three hits and again the final was 9-4 as Niekro went eight innings.

The hit brigade continued on Saturday with another four-run first inning and another nine-run performance overall. Puckett and Gaetti had extra base hits in the big first inning. Puckett went on to a four-hit game that included a home run. Brunansky had three hits. The final of this one was 9-2.

Sunday’s game was finally competitive, but Minnesota still kept hitting. Hrbek blasted a three-run homer early and Brunansky also went deep. The Twins built a 7-3 lead. The A’s cut it to 7-5 and brought Jose Canseco to the plate as the tying run, but Reardon induced a ground ball out to short. The sweep was complete.

Minnesota built a five-game lead, but were subsequently swept by the Tigers and Red Sox. The lead was quickly wiped out and pitching was still a concern. The Twins made a desperate attempt at veteran help when they picked up 42-year-old lefty Steve Carlton. A future Hall of Famer and probably the best pitcher of the 1970s and early 1980s, Carlton had nothing left in the tank. He had won the Saturday game in the Oakland sweep, but otherwise was a disaster. He made seven starts for the Twins and finished with a 6.70 ERA. Viola and Blyleven would have to drive this team to the finish line.

The four days leading up to Labor Day were dramatic, as the Twins won three games in walkoff fashion. When the holiday arrived, they again had breathing room—the record was a modest 73-65, but in the AL West that was good enough to be plus-three on Oakland, with Kansas City and California each 5 ½ games off the pace.

Minnesota played steady baseball in September. The only real scare point was when they lost three straight to the Chicago White Sox, but quickly turned around to sweep the Cleveland Indians. When the final week of play began on Monday, September 28, the Twins had a six-game lead and were poised to clinch when they visited Texas.

Niekro was on the mound and fell behind 3-0 in the first inning. Minnesota tied the game in the fourth with an unlikely three-run blast from Lombardozzi. The second baseman came through again in the eighth with an RBI single. The 5-3 game appropriately ended on a line drive double play—hit at Lombardozzi. Minnesota was AL West champs.

With a record of 85-77, one exceeded by four AL East teams, Minnesota was a heavy underdog against Detroit when the American League Championship Series began. But a lot of factors worked in favor of the Twins.

For one, the Tigers were drained after an incredible September battle with the Blue Jays for the division title. For another, the primacy of a team’s top two starting pitchers—an area where the Twins could match up with anyone—increases significantly in a short series. And finally, with homefield advantage determined on a rotation basis, Minnesota had the good fortune to win their division in a year where the AL West champ had homefield all the way through the postseason.

Regardless of where the games were played, Minnesota stunned the baseball world with a complete dismantling of Detroit. The Twins took the first two at home, then took two of three in Tiger Stadium to lock up their first pennant since 1965. Gaetti was voted ALCS MVP.

The World Series was a Midwestern affair, as Minnesota met the St. Louis Cardinals. This time, homefield was a big deal. Home teams won all seven World Series games. Viola won two games, including Game 7 and was named Series MVP.

Good times were back for Minnesota Twins baseball and they weren’t done. Even though Oakland took over the AL West for the next three years, the Twins still had a strong season in 1988. And in 1991—when the AL West was again due for homefield advantage all the way through—Minnesota did it again, winning another World Series.