The Minnesota Twins were an 85-win team, one of the worst to ever reach the League Championship Series round in 1987. The Detroit Tigers had the best record in baseball and were fresh off winning an epic divisional race against the second-best team, the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s natural that the Minnesota-Detroit matchup in the 1987 ALCS was seen as one-sided and destined for a quick ending. That’s what happened, but not in a way anyone anticipated.
You can read more about the paths each team took to its respective division title at the links below. This article will focus exclusively on the games of the 1987 ALCS.
Doyle Alexander’s acquisition by Detroit was essential to their survival in the AL East. Alexander had been dominant down the stretch and he would start Game 1. Minnesota, in spite of their flaws, had the advantage of a terrific top-of-the-rotation arm in lefty Frank Viola. As a further aid to the Twins, homefield advantage was set on a rotation basis rather than merit and it was the year for the AL West (where the Twins resided from 1969-93) to host.
Minnesota third baseman Gary Gaetti launched the first blow of the series with a dead-center home run off Alexander in the bottom of the second. Detroit catcher Mike Heath did exactly the same thing in the third inning and the game went to the bottom of the fifth still tied 1-1.
Gaetti led off the inning and did it again, homering to right center. Randy Bush and Tom Brunansky followed with extra base hits and the Twins were up 3-1. After a sac bunt from second baseman Steve Lombardozzi moved Brunansky to third, Alexander struck out catcher Tim Laudner. The Tiger pitcher was poised to escape without further damage before left fielder Dan Gladden lined a two-out single to right.
Viola again let the Tigers answer right back, when Kirk Gibson hit a two-out solo blast and Detroit kept grinding away in the top of the seventh. Larry Herndon, Chet Lemon and Darrell Evans hit consecutive singles to start the inning and the bases were loaded with none out. After a strikeout, Heath lined a single to center. The lead was cut to 4-3 and the bases were still loaded.
Minnesota manager Tom Kelly stuck with Viola, who pulled an escape act. He got Lou Whitaker to hit a grounder to Kent Hrbek at first base, who got the forceout at home. Viola got Bill Madlock to end the inning with the lead intact.
It didn’t stay intact for long though. Viola came back out for the eighth and this proved to be a bridge to far. He walked Gibson and allowed a double to shortstop Alan Trammell. With runners on second and third, Kelly summoned closer Jeff Reardon. He didn’t allow a hit, but consecutive sac flies from Dave Bergman and Lemon put Detroit up 5-4.
There was every reason to think Minnesota was essentially done. They had blown a lead at home with their best pitcher on the mound in a series where they already needed every break. Instead, they came fighting back against Alexander. Gladden singled to left and centerfielder Kirby Puckett quickly doubled him home. It was 5-all and Alexander was pulled for Mike Henneman.
The Twins kept coming. Two walks, one of them intentional, loaded up the bases. Detroit manager Sparky Anderson called for his closer, Willie Hernandez. Like Kelly, Anderson waited too long. Minnesota had acquired Don Baylor for the stretch drive precisely for at-bats like this. He was a veteran that could handle pressure and he was right-handed bat that could handle a lefty like Hernandez. Baylor singled and put the Twins up 6-5.
Brunansky immediately followed with a big insurance double that gave Minnesota an 8-5 lead. It proved important when Detroit put two on with one out in the ninth. Reardon struck out Madlock and Gibson and the Twins had taken Game 1.
There weren’t many pitchers more reliable in a big game in this era than Jack Morris. Minnesota fans found that out firsthand four years later when Morris pitched them to a World Series title. But in 1987, Morris was a Tiger and entrusted with the ball for Game 2.
If Morris did the job, Detroit would have calmed the waters, gotten a split and have three straight home games ahead of them. Minnesota had a tough veteran of their own to counter with in Bert Blyleven. With an ERA a bit over 4, Blyleven wasn’t great, but he was still a future Hall of Famer.
The Tigers got Blyleven in the second. Matt Nokes started the inning with a single and Lemon homered. Pat Sheridan singled, stole second and was bunted to third. There was still only one out and Heath came to the plate. He couldn’t duplicate his success of the previous night and failed to pick up the run and the game stayed 2-0.
Gaetti got the Twins started in the second with a one-out double. Brunansky doubled with two outs to cut the lead in half. Shortstop Greg Gagne drew a walk and the third double of the inning—this one from Laudner down the left field line—scored both runs and the Metrodome crowd was rocking again with their team up 3-2.
Minnesota kept coming in the fourth, again doing the most damage with two outs. After Laudner struck out in a bases-loaded/one-out situation, Morris was in position to escape. Instead, Gladden again delivered a clutch hit, a two-run single to left that extended the lead to 5-2. One inning later, Hrbek homered to make it 6-2. Blyleven stayed in command until allowing a solo homer to Whitaker in the eighth, but there was no real late drama in a 6-3 final.
After a travel day, play resumed on Saturday afternoon in Detroit with the Tigers unexpectedly having their back to the wall. The good news for Detroit was that Minnesota’s key weakness was a lack of depth in the rotation. And the Tiger bats were able to get after Game 3 starter Lee Straker.
Straker flirted with danger in the first when he walked Whitaker and Evans, but nothing came of it. The Twins’ starter wasn’t as fortunate in the bottom of the third. Detroit loaded the bases with a Sheridan double, a Whitaker single and a Gibson walk. With nobody out a groundball force play at second brought in the game’s first run. After a stolen base, Straker balked in a run and Trammell singled in another.
It was 3-0 and after another walk, Straker was gone. Dan Schatzeder came in, but Herndon got him for a two-run double and Detroit was rolling with a 5-0 lead.
Minnesota signaled they wouldn’t go quietly when the light-hitting Gagne homered to begin the top of the fourth. Hrbek worked a one-out walk and eventually scored on base hits by Gaetti and Bush. With the lead cut to 5-2 and runners on the corners with one out, Tiger starter Walt Terrell got Brunansky on a pop up and escape without further damage.
Brunanasky redeemed himself in the top of the sixth with a two-out, two-run blast that made it 5-4. The Twins kept coming in the top of the seventh. Sal Butera and Dan Gladden opened the inning with singles, putting runners on first and third and ending Terrell’s day. Mike Henneman came on in relief. Gagne hit a ground ball to third and pinch-runner Mark Davidson tried to score the tying run. He was cut down at the plate and Detroit hung on to its lead. Puckett fouled out to first, but it was a deep enough pop-out that the runners were able to tag and get to second and third.
Hrbek was intentionally walked to set up Henneman-vs-Gaetti. From the classic righty-lefty standpoint, this was the textbook move, with Henneman a right-handed pitcher while Hrbek batted lefty and Gaetti from the right side. But given how hot Gaetti was in this series, it was a questionable situational move from a future Hall of Fame manager in Anderson. And it didn’t work, with Gaetti singling to right.
The Twins had come all the way back to lead 6-5 and got to within six outs of putting a stranglehold on the series. But in the bottom of the eighth, Herndon led off with a single. Detroit’s desperation was underlined by the fact that Morris, a fast runner, came in to run. It turned out not to matter—after a failed sac bunt attempt, Pat Sheridan homered. The Tigers were back up 7-6 and this time Henneman held the lead.
It was a series again, but even in victory nothing was coming easy for Detroit. They sent veteran lefty Frank Tanana to the mound on Sunday night for Game 4, while Minnesota brought back Viola on three days’ rest.
The Tigers got a soft run out of the gate. Whitaker led off the bottom of the first with a walk and came around on an infield hit from Trammell and an error by Gagne. The Twins got something going in the top of the second when Baylor led off with a single and Brunansky walked, but nothing came of it.
Minnesota muscled up in the next two innings, with Puckett homering to tie it in the third and Gagne’s solo blast in the fourth giving them a 2-1 lead. Puckett then got the top of the fifth started with a single that turned into a three bases after being misplayed by Herndon in the outfield. Gaetti picked up Puckett with a sac fly.
Whitaker got another Detroit rally started with a two-out walk in the bottom of the fifth and then scored on consecutive singles from Jim Morrison and Gibson. Herndon, looking to redeem himself, hit the ball hard…but right at Gaetti and the Twins’ 3-2 lead was preserved heading into the sixth.
Gagne and Gene Larkin chased Tanana with doubles to get the run back and make it 4-2. In the bottom of the inning, singles by Lemon and Darrell Evans ended Viola’s night. Another single, this one from Dave Bergmann cut the lead to 4-3 and left runners on first and second, still with nobody out. Heath bunted the runners up.
Evans, a 40-year-old vet, then made a a huge baserunning mistake. He drifted too far off third and an alert Laudner picked him off. Minnesota clung to its lead and got some insurance in the eighth when an error and wild pitch set up a two-out RBI single from Lombardozzi. Reardon came in on the ninth and after a leadoff single, got Whitaker, then struck out Nokes and Gibson to seal the game.
Minnesota not only held a 3-1 series lead, but they had grabbed a road win and had two more home games in the bank. They also had Blyleven on the mound for Game 5. Detroit went back to Alexander for their final home game on Monday afternoon.
Alexander’s magic from the stretch drive was gone. In the top of the second, Gaetti singled, Bush walked and Brunansky doubled both runs in. He was thrown out trying for third, but the Twins weren’t done. Lombardozzi singled, moved to second on a productive out and scored on a base hit from Gladden. Alexander hit a batter, then gave up another RBI single to Puckett. It was 4-0 and Anderson was forced into his bullpen, bringing in young Eric King with the season on the line.
King did an admirable job in stopping the bleeding and the Tigers got back in the game in the fourth. After a Gibson double and Trammell single, Nokes homered to cut the lead to 4-3.
It stayed that way until the top of the seventh. A one-out single, hit batsman and wild pitch set up a sacrifice fly from Hrbek and Minnesota had some modest breathing room at 5-3. They expanded that in the eighth, now facing Hennenman. Gladden doubled with one out and Gagne drew a walk. Puckett hit a bouncer back to Henneman. He got the force at second, but Gladden went to third where he scored on a fielder’s choice.
The Twins could surely taste the champagne when Berenguer got the first two outs in the eighth. Lemon homered to cut it to 6-4, bringing on Reardon, who ended the inning.
Minnesota delivered the final blow in the top of the ninth. Brunansky homered to make it 7-4. Lombardozzi singled and with two outs, Gladden and Gagne hit back-to-back doubles. It was 9-4 and all but over. Detroit got a run in the ninth, but when Nokes bounced back to Reardon for a 1-3 putout, it was over. The Twins had completed an upset stunning not only in that they won, but had done so in a swift five-game series and won twice in Tiger Stadium.
Gaetti was an easy choice for 1987 ALCS MVP. He went 6-for-20, a solid .300 batting average, but that doesn’t tell the impact of those hits. He homered twice, drove in five runs, scored five more and always seemed to be in the middle of Minnesota’s crucial rallies.
Another notable performances came from Gagne and Brunansky, who each homered twice. On the Detroit side, Lemon was the best in defeat. He went 5-for-18 and hit a pair of home runs. Evans had productive numbers, 5-for-17 and he drew five walks, but getting picked off third in Game 4 was one of the big turning points of the series. And perhaps nothing was more important to Minnesota’s ultimate victory than their pitching holding Whitaker and Trammell, the fine 1-2 punch at the top of the order, to a combined 7-for-37.
For Minnesota, the magic was just starting. They went on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1987 World Series and rode dome-field advantage all the way to a title, taking a seven-game Series where each game was won by the home team. It was the first two World Series championships in a five-year span.
The Twins’ championship runs are well-remembered, especially for their dominance at home. Less remembered, but just as worthy as a place in the history books, is their improbable upset in the 1987 ALCS.