It isn’t often that a team coming off the first World Series title in franchise history has something to prove. It’s even less frequent that this team could finish a distant second place and still manage to prove that intangible “something.” But that’s exactly how the 1988 Minnesota Twins can be described.
The Twins came out of nowhere in 1987. A franchise that had not finished over .500 since 1979, jumped up and won a division title. It wasn’t the most impressive of division crowns, with 85 wins, but it got Minnesota onto the October stage. And from there, they took off, upsetting more credentialed opponents from Detroit and St. Louis to win it all.
But how good were these Twins? This was still a franchise that hadn’t won 90 games since 1970. Was ’87 just a strange year where they benefitted from a soft division and a hot streak at the right time? In 1988, the landscape of the American League changed and the AL West that Minnesota occupied prior to 1994 became a lot tougher. That kept the Twins out of the postseason. But they were actually better than they’d been a year earlier, and in a roundabout way, validated their title run of the previous October.
Kirby Puckett was the star and the centerfielder had his best season to date in 1988. With 24 home runs and 121 RBIs, Puckett finished third in the American League MVP voting. More power came from the corner spots of the infield. Kent Hrbek hit 25 home runs and posted a stat line of .387 on-base percentage/.520 slugging percentage. At third base, Gary Gaetti’s line was .353/.551 and he homered 28 times.
Dan Gladden played left field and his 28 stolen bases helped spark the lineup, even if his overall production levels were mediocre. Randy Bush was in rightfield and provided a respectable stat line of .365/.434. Gene Larkin handled DH duties and while he didn’t have much power, the .368 OBP was solid. Manager Tom Kelly always got the most out of his bench, and the best example this year was outfielder John Moses, who posted a .366 OBP in just over 200 plate appearances.
Minnesota ended up fifth in the American League for runs scored. The pitching staff wasn’t far behind, coming in sixth in staff ERA. The top of the rotation had driven the previous October’s postseason success. And staff ace Frank Viola got even better in 1988. Viola won 24 games, finished with a 2.64 ERA and won the Cy Young Award.
But Viola’s running mate, future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, was now 37-years-old and Blyleven struggled in 1988. The final numbers were ugly: 10-17 and a 5.43 ERA. Fortunately for the Twins, 24-year-old Allan Anderson picked up the slack, making 30 starts, getting 16 victories and posting a 2.45 ERA.
The back end of the rotation remained problematic and Kelly did his best to work with Charlie Lea, Freddie Tolliver and Les Straker, who were all varying degrees of mediocre. The middle and setup relief crew relied on Juan Berenguer, who finished with a 3.96 ERA and Keith Atherton, whose ERA clocked in at 3.41.
They weren’t bad, but given the rotation depth issues, the Twins could have used a couple more arms in these roles. Because if they could just get to the end of games, Minnesota was in good hands. Jeff Reardon was one of baseball’s best closers and in 1988 he saved 42 games with a 2.47 ERA.
Skeptics of the Twins’ 1987 performance got early ammunition when they lost 11 of their first 16 games. A sweep of Baltimore, who was off to a historically bad start provided a brief respite. But the Twins were still 9-16 in late April and ten games back of the sizzling Oakland A’s.
The alignment of major league baseball prior to 1994 had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place team could advance to the postseason. So when we say Minnesota was staring at a 10-game deficit in the AL West, that was even more alarming than it would be today.
It was early May that Minnesota began to play better baseball. By the end of the month, they were starting to roll, with an eight-game winning streak leading into Memorial Day. The Twins’ record at the holiday was 24-22 and they were up to second place. But the A’s had a comfortable nine-game cushion.
Minnesota continued to play well through the early summer months. They chipped away at the divisional deficit and were within six games when they visited Oakland for a four-game set in late June. Gaetti homered twice in Friday night’s opener, an 11-5 win. Saturday afternoon saw a tough 4-3 loss, in spite of two hits apiece from Moses, Puckett and second baseman Steve Lombardozzi.
But a Sunday doubleheader gave the good people of the Twin Cities renewed hope. Gaetti unloaded with three hits, a home run and 3 RBIs in the opener, an 11-0 rout behind Lea. The second game was a high-profile pitching matchup between Viola and Oakland ace Dave Stewart. With the top of the Minnesota batting order—Gladden, Moses, and Puckett—combining for eight hits, and Viola pitching a gem, the Twins won 5-0.
They were back in the race and got as close as 3 ½ games. Getting swept at home by Milwaukee (an American League team prior to 1998, but in the AL East) to end the first half quelled the momentum, but Minnesota still went into the All-Star break with a record of 47-38 and within 5 ½ games of first place.
The Twins came barreling out of the break by taking four of five games from the lowly Orioles. Even though Minnesota lost three straight at red-hot Boston, the Twins still went on to win 17 of the 30 games they played in August. That included sweeping all six from the Tigers, were battling the Red Sox at the top of the AL East.
By rights, reaching Labor Day with a record of 76-60, should have had Minnesota squarely in the pennant race. But Oakland was just too hot. The “Bash Brothers” of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were taking baseball by storm this year for the first time. Even though the Twins would have been one game up in the AL East, they were 9 ½ back in the AL West.
Minnesota continued to play steady baseball through September. Oakland never slowed down, so this never became a race, but the Twins achieved two moral victories. First, they broke the 90-win threshold and finished with a final record of 91-71. Second, that record would have won the AL East and was fourth-best in the majors.
The Twins might have been stuck in the wrong division for 1988, but their solid performance had given greater weight to that magical World Series run of 1987.