Tuesday, October 26, 2010

October 27, 1991: 1-0

MINNEAPOLIS - How could the series get any better? How could game 7 approach the drama of the first six game of the 1991 World Series? After a series that dramatic, with that many close games won in the final moment, how could game 7 live up to its promise? What script would you even write to make it a fitting final chapter?

Jack Morris and John Smoltz didn't care about making game 7 match the previous six in drama. They just wanted to win. But their head-to-head duel became one for the ages, one of the most memorable World Series matchups of all time.

Morris was the cagey veteran, the longtime Tiger who joined his hometown Twins in time for the 1991 season and promptly led them to the World Series. For him to be pitching game 7 for his hometown team, at home, was a dream come true. Smoltz was the up-and-coming youngster, a man who grew up in Michigan idolizing Morris. He was pitching against his hero in the biggest game of his life. The two stared each other down, daring the other to blink first. Neither did.

It wasn't as nobody had their chances to score, either. The Braves put a runner on second in the second, third, fourth, and fifth innings, while the Twins got baserunners in each of those innings, as well. But Morris and Smoltz wouldn't budge.

The first sign that something special was happening came in the top of the fifth, when Atlanta put runners on first and third with one out. National League MVP Terry Pendleton was up next, but he popped up to the infield for the second out. With two outs, Ron Gant worked a full count against Morris, but then Morris dropped his famous forkball on him. Gant was frozen. Morris pumped his fist and started walking off the mound before the umpire even signalled strike three. The game was on.

Things were quiet then for a few innings, the two teams biding their times before their next opportunity, perhaps waiting for the other starter to tire. They had to wait until the eighth, one of the most remarkable innings in World Series history.

Atlanta started the eighth with a single by Lonnie Smith. Up came Pendleton again, and this time he drilled one, and Smith took off. Approaching second, Smith looked up and saw Minnesota middle infielders Greg Gagne and Chuck Knoblauch pretending to turn a double play. Confused, Smith stopped and looked around, trying to find the ball. As it bounced high off the plexiglass wall, he quickly ran to third, with Pendleton claiming second behind him. The Twins had caught a break - Smith would have scored easily on the hit had he not lost track of the ball.

Still, though, the Braves were threatening, with runners on second and third with nobody out. Instead of walking Gant, Atlanta's cleanup hitter, the Twins elected to pitch to him, being rewarded with a slow grounder to first that failed to drive home a run. The intentional walk came next, putting David Justice on first and bringing up Sid Bream. Bream's grounder to first was quickly turned into a rare 3-2-3 double play, igniting the Metrodome and keeping the game scoreless.

Now it was the Twins' turn. With all the momentum, they got a pinch-hit single from Randy Bush, followed by a one-out single by Chuck Knoblauch. That was it for Smoltz, removed for Mike Stanton. With the lefty Stanton coming in, it was obvious there was about to be an intentional walk to Kirby Puckett - no way the Braves were going to let him beat them again. Kent Hrbek was up next, a notoriously poor hitter against lefties. He got a good swing on a Stanton pitch, though, lining one up the middle - right into the glove of second baseman Mark Lemke, who stepped on second for the double play.

The remarkable 8th inning over and the game still scoreless, the game moved to the ninth, the tension still growing. Morris, inspired by his escape from the previous inning, got through the ninth in order. The Twins again put two runners on base in the bottom of the ninth, but a double-play ball and a strikeout ended that threat.

On to the tenth, and Morris was still on the mound. Going far beyond what the Twins expected of him, the 36-year-old Morris pitched another perfect inning, leaving to a standing ovation after 10 brilliant shutout innings. Heading to the bottom of the inning, and the Twins knew they had to get one. There was no telling how long Morris would be able to pitch. With the top of their order coming up, their chance was now.

Dan Gladden started things off with a broken-bat blooper that bounced high off the Astroturf in left, letting him hustle to second for a double. Knoblauch bunted him to third, bringing up Puckett. For a moment, fans could dream of another dramatic hit by Kirby, but those dreams didn't last - another intentional walk. Hrbek was given first, as well, setting up the force at any base. With Chili Davis having been removed for a pinch-runner, Gene Larkin went up to pinch-hit for Minnesota, looking to drive anything to the outfield to bring Gladden home. He swung at the first pitch.

As that ball floated to deep left field, a week's worth of tension and excitement was released. The five one-run games, the four walk-off wins, the three extra-inning games, all boiling down to this. The ball fell on the warning track, Gladden jogged home and hopped on the plate, the Twins mobbed him and Larkin. The greatest World Series of them all, capped off by the greatest game 7 ever played. A perfectly fitting final chapter to a remarkable championship.


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