How The 1991 Minnesota Twins Won The AL West
The 1991 Minnesota Twins were like a skilled presidential candidate that knew how to peak every four years and at the time where their advantage would be at its max. They won the World Series in 1987. They were overtaken by the powerful Oakland A’s for the next three years and slid to last place in the old AL West by 1990. But when 1991 came around, the Twins came rising back to the top and they won another World Series title.
Minnesota moved aggressively in free agency prior to the 1991 season. They signed Chili Davis to be the DH and Davis rewarded them with a .385 on-base percentage, 29 home runs and 93 RBI. But the biggest catch on the free agent market was veteran starting pitcher Jack Morris.
Morris had been the staff ace on Detroit’s 1984 championship team and the key to a successful AL East title run in 1987. He had a deserved reputation as a big-game pitcher. His main attribute in the regular season was that he was a horse—35 starts, an 18-12 record and 3.43 ERA. But in the biggest games he could turn it up another notch and what he brought to the Twins would become very apparent at the season’s biggest moment.
Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson were better starting pitchers during the regular season. Tapani won 16 games with a 2.99 ERA, while Erickson was a 20-game winner with a 3.18 ERA. Rick Aguilera was the closer and saved 42 games and posted a 2.35 ERA. Carl Willis, a future pitching coach, was a solid setup man with a 2.63 ERA. The pitching staff was top-heavy, dependent on three core starters and two primary relievers, but they were good enough to be second in the American League in ERA.
The offense wasn’t bad either, ranking fourth in the AL in runs scored. They did it by leading the league in both batting average and on-base percentage. Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch won Rookie of the Year honors with a .351 OBP and he consistently sparked the attack with his speed. Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Shane Mack and Brian Harper could both get on base and drive the ball for power. Gene Larkin provided quality depth with a .361 OBP off the bench.
Even so, there was nothing early in the season to suggest anything special was in the works. Minnesota was playing sub-.500 baseball as Memorial Day arrived and in a competitive AL West, it was the Texas Rangers who were out to the early lead with the A’s hot on their heels. The Twins were in sixth (Prior to 1994, the AL West also included the Royals, Mariners, Angels and White Sox with the winner advancing directly to the ALCS). On Memorial Day itself, the Minnesota opened a three-game set in Texas by losing 11-4.
It was at this point that the 1991 Minnesota Twins turned it around became the team they’re remembered as. Erickson took the ball on Tuesday and fired eight shutout innings in a 3-0 win. In the Wednesday finale, light-hitting shortstop Greg Gange took Nolan Ryan deep, drove in four runs and provided the necessary support for Morris and the workhorse threw a four-hitter.
The series win in Texas set the stage for a scorching June, where the Twins would win 22 of 28 games and not only move into first place, but lead by as many as 4 ½ games on June 25. They hit the skids in the week prior to the All-Star Break and were back to a dead heat with the Rangers, but Minnesota had positive momentum going.
Texas lost eight of eleven games to start the second half and faded quickly, but Oakland and Chicago stayed on Minnesota’s heels. On the first weekend of August, the Twins played the first of two key series with the A’s, who had spent three years as the gold standard in this division and in all of baseball. Oakland was only three games off the pace, with Chicago two games out.
Morris pitched well in Friday night’s opener, but the Twins offense couldn’t get anything going against reigning Cy Young Award winner Bob Welch in a 3-1 loss. The following afternoon, Minnesota dug, themselves a 5-0 hole. If you peeked ahead to Sunday, Oakland had their own clutch ace, Dave Stewart, in waiting. The race was ready to get even tighter. It was time for another dramatic reversal of momentum.
Harper hit a three-run homer and keyed a stunning seven-ran rally that gave Minnesota a win. They came out the next day and jumped Stewart for three runs in the first inning, got some clutch middle relief work from Willis and took the series with a 6-2 win.
Two weeks later it was A’s and Twins and the Metrodome. Oakland was now five games out and fighting to hold on, while Chicago was still within 2 ½ games.
Friday night’s opener was a 2-2 tie in the ninth when A’s left fielder Jose Canseco hit a two-run blast and Oakland turned the game over to Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley. Minnesota scrapped out two runs to tie the game then won it in the 12th when Knoblauch doubled and scored.
A Morris-Welch rematch was up on Saturday and it didn’t begin well as Morris gave up three runs in the first. Welch imploded quickly though. Knoblauch had three hits, Harper drove in four runs and the result was a 12-4 rout.
The Twins trailed 4-1 on Sunday against Stewart when they unleashed more comeback mojo. They got two in the seventh and Oakland went to the bullpen. In the eighth, a Harper triple started a three-run rally that led to a 6-4 win. Minnesota lost Monday’s wraparound finale, but even in defeat they showed how hard they were going to be to kill. After trailing 6-0, they made a furious rally before coming up short, 8-7.
The Oakland dynasty was all but dead. Chicago was still within 3 ½ games and the prospect of a hot race to the finish loomed. But now it was time for the White Sox to implode. In a schedule stretch against mediocre teams, Chicago lost nine straight. By the time September arrived, the Twins’ lead soared to eight games.
Minnesota stayed in command through the final month and by the time to second-to-last weekend of the season arrived they were in position to clinch. On Saturday in Toronto, Morris threw a complete-game six-hitter and the 5-0 win at least ensured a tie. The Twins lost on Sunday, but thanks to a 26-year-old Seattle Mariners’ lefty named Randy Johnson, who beat the White Sox 2-1, Minnesota was still able to pour the champagne with a full week to go.
It was no coincidence that Minnesota was successful in the four-year cycle that peaked, for them, in 1987 and 1991. Homefield advantage for the postseason in this era was determined by a rotation system. In both ‘87 and ‘91, the AL West had homefield in both the LCS and World Series (We should note in fairness that while the 1987 Twins were a big beneficiary of this, the ‘91 Twins had a superior regular season record to both teams they faced in October).
And they didn’t need homefield to win the ALCS against Toronto. The teams split the first two games in the Metrodome. It was when the series shifted north of the border that the Twins took over. They won all three games in Toronto, including a big late rally to win Game 5 and clinch the pennant.
Homefield was the decisive factor in the World Series with the Atlanta Braves, as home teams won every game. That meant Minnesota was down 3-2 in games when they came home for Game 6, but the closing two games on Saturday and Sunday night would be as memorable as any finish the World Series has ever seen.
Puckett was the hero on Saturday, making a great catch at the wall early in the game and then hitting an extra-inning home run to win it. Sunday’s Game 7 managed to be even better. Morris and young Braves’ starter John Smoltz went toe-to-toe in a tense scoreless duel. The game went to extra innings. Atlanta went to the bullpen, but Minnesota stayed with Morris, who completed a scoreless tenth. The Twins got a run in their half of the inning and were World Series champions again.
READ MORE ABOUT THE 1991 WORLD SERIES
Minnesota has produced a number of good teams in the years since 1991. They were re-aligned into the newly created AL Central in 1994 and won it three consecutive years from 2002-04. They had won division titles again in 2006 and in 2009-10. After rebuilding, they made the playoffs in 2017 as a wild-card. But they haven’t hoisted the ultimate prize since that magical time in 1991.