The Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves each finished in last place during the 1990 season. Each engendered a turnaround that led to an improbable matchup in the 1991 World Series. And the Series they played would go down on the short list of the greatest of all-time.
You can read more about the paths the Twins and Braves took through the regular season and playoffs, along with their key players, at the links below. This article will focus in specifically on the games of the 1991 World Series.
Homefield advantage was determined by a rotation system and Minnesota had the good fortune of enjoying that advantage for the second time in five years. In 1987, homefield was decisive in their seven-game triumph over the St. Louis Cardinals. The confines of the old Metrodome would again be friendly to the Twins in 1991.
Minnesota sent their veteran ace, Jack Morris, to the mound for Game 1. Atlanta’s rotation was filled with great young arms, but their drawn-out victory in the NLCS forced manager Bobby Cox to turn to veteran lefty Charlie Leibrandt.
The Twins manufactured a run in the third when Dan Gladden drew a two-out walk, stole second and scored on a base hit by Chuck Knoblauch. In the fifth, they broke out open. Kent Hrbek walked to lead off the inning and Scott Leius singled. Greg Gagne, a shortstop not known for his power, ripped a three-run blast.
It was 4-0, Leibrandt was knocked out and the Twins were cruising. Hrbek homered in the sixth, Morris worked seven solid innings and the final score was 5-2.
Tom Glavine won the Cy Young Award in 1991 for Atlanta, the first big milestone of what would be a Hall of Fame career. But he hadn’t won in a game in the postseason yet. He took the ball for Sunday night’s Game 2 against Minnesota’s Kevin Tapani.
An error by Atlanta rightfielder Dave Justice put leadoff man Gladden aboard right away in the first. After a walk, Glavine got Kirby Puckett to ground into a double play. But on the verge of getting out of the inning, Glavine was taken deep by Chili Davis and the Twins immediately led two-zip.
Justice redeemed himself with a single to lead off the second and came around to score and cut the lead in half. In the top of the fifth, Greg Olsen hit a leadoff double and subsequently scored on consecutive productive outs. It was a 2-2 game and stayed that way to the eighth.
Atlanta looked ready to break through again in the top of the eighth when Rafael Belliard bunted for hit, was sacrificed to second and then Terry Pendleton beat out an infield single. There were runners on first and third with one out and the meat of the order due up. But in a result that would oddly foreshadow Game 7, the Braves missed their eighth-inning opportunity. Ron Gant popped out, Dave Justice flew out and Tapani had survived the eighth.
Glavine wasn’t so fortunate—he gave up a leadoff home run to Leius and the 3-2 score stood. Minnesota had held serve at home and was up two games to none.
Steve Avery had been Atlanta’s hero in the NLCS, spinning two shutouts against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Avery now had a virtual must-win assignment for Game 3, the first World Series game ever played in the city of Atlanta.
That there wouldn’t be another shutout for Avery was established rather quickly—Gladden started the game with a triple and Knoblauch picked him up with a sac fly. But the young lefthander settled in and the Braves went to work against Scott Erickson.
With two outs in the bottom of the second, Olson worked a walk and then scored on consecutive singles from Mark Lemke and Belliard. Justice homered in the fourth and Atlanta had its first lead of this Fall Classic. Lonnie Smith homered in the fifth. That same inning, after two were out, a walk and an error chased Erickson. David West came out of the bullpen and promptly walked two more. The Atlanta lead was now 4-1.
When Avery escaped a sixth-inning jam of first and second with none out, it looked like the Twins would be turned back. But they kept coming. Puckett homered in the seventh. In the eighth, Avery was removed following an error to start the inning. Alejandro Pena came on and the closer promptly gave up a game-tying two-run blast to Davis.
Both bullpens settled down and the 4-4 score held into the 12th inning. In the top of the frame, the Twins put runners on first and second with one out. Kent Mercker came out of the Atlanta pen and struck out Hrbek. Cox, working the right-lefty matchups, went to Jim Clancy.
After Clancy gave Puckett an intentional walk, Minnesota manager Tom Kelly was forced to use his closer, Rick Aguilera as a pinch-hitter for outgoing reliever Mark Guthrie. Aguilera had played in the National League, a key part of the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets, so he was familiar with batting. He hit the ball hard in this spot, but it ended a lineout to center.
Aguilera would be the 13th pitcher to appear in this game and the last. Justice hit a one-out single in the bottom of the 12th. With two outs, he stole second and then scored the winning run on a base hit by Lemke. Atlanta was back in the Series.
The Twins went back to Morris on short rest for Game 4. Atlanta had another great young arm, one destined for the Hall of Fame and fresh off of pitching well in the NLCS. John Smoltz made his World Series debut on Wednesday night.
Minnesota scored first for the fourth consecutive game in this Series. Brian Harper doubled to start the second and Mike Pagliarulo picked him up with a one-out single. Pendleton answered for Atlanta in the third with a home run that tied the game 1-1.
Each team threatened, but came up short in the middle innings, in both instances undone by a play at the plate. Shane Mack for the Twins and Lonnie Smith for the Braves were each thrown out at home. The 1-1 tie persisted into the seventh when Pagliarulo gave Minnesota the lead with a solo blast.
Morris was taken out after six innings in favor of Carl Willis, a quality setup reliever who had been exceptional in the ALCS triumph over the Toronto Blue Jays. Willis was not exceptional here—he gave up a tying home run to Lonnie Smith.
For the third straight game, there was maximum tension in the late innings. It was still 2-2 in the ninth, with Guthrie now pitching for the Twins. Lemke tripled with one out. After an intentional walk, Kelly turned to veteran righthander Steve Bedrosian to get him out of the jam. Atlanta’s light-hitting Jerry Willard delivered a sacrifice fly bringing Lemke in with the run that won the game and evened up the World Series.
There were only two games in this World Series that weren’t nail-biters. The first one had been Game 1 and the other would be Thursday’s Game 5. After Glavine and Tapani matched zeroes for three innings, the Braves’ offense unloaded. Justice hit a two-run blast in the fourth to key a four-run inning. He drove in another run in the fifth. The Twins rallied with three runs in the sixth, but a Lonnie Smith leadoff blast in the seventh jump-started a six-run outburst that put the game away. The final was 14-5. Atlanta was one win from a title.
But that win would have to come in the Metrodome, where the Series would return for Saturday night’s Game 6 and Sunday night’s potential Game 7. The Twins had played ten postseason games here in both 1987 and 1991 and won nine of them. These next two nights would add to that total and each would have their own unique case as a game for the ages.
Avery matched up with Erickson. Minnesota took some pressure off themselves with early when Knoblauch singled in the first and scored on a triple by Puckett. Mack’s two-out RBI single made it 2-0.
In the third inning, Gant ripped a shot into the left-centerfield gap that looked certain to drive in a run. Puckett made a leaping catch off the plexiglass wall and kept it a 2-0 game. His team would need every run they could get (or stop) and Puckett wasn’t done yet.
In the meantime, Pendleton hit a two-run blast in the fifth that tied the game. The Twins got the lead back in the bottom of the inning when Gladden walked, stole second and came around on productive outs from Knoblauch and Puckett. The Braves answered with a run of their own in the seventh. A single, walk and an infield hit set up an RBI groundout from Gant.
The game was again tied. Again were going to the late innings with stomachs churning in the dugouts and in front of TV sets across the country. Each bullpen tightened up, Mike Stanton and Alejandro Pena for the Braves, and Willis and Aguilera for the Twins.
In the bottom of the 11th, Leibrandt came on in relief. Puckett was the first batter he faced. A game-winning home run put the finishing touches on Puckett’s amazing night and this series was going to a seventh game.
Morris made his third start of the series for Game 7. Smoltz was on the hill for Atlanta. The gutsy veteran and the rising young ace would each meet the moment in this decisive game.
Smoltz was in lockdown mode and through seven innings, Minnesota never mounted a serious threat. Atlanta was chipping away at Morris, but the veteran kept the Braves at bay. In the third and fifth inning, the Braves got runners on the corners with one out and Pendleton at the plate. Both times, Morris won the battle with Pendleton and no runs scored.
In the eighth inning, the Braves were finally poised to break through. Lonnie Smith singled to start the inning. Pendleton slashed a double to left center. It looked certain to score Smith, but in a big baserunning blunder, Smith stopped midway between second and third, uncertain as to where the ball was. He made it safely to third, but there were still no runs on the board.
Even so, there was still nobody out and some big hitters due up. Morris got Gant to ground out to first, with no advance from the runners. Justice was given an intentional walk. Sid Bream came up and hit a groundball to first. Hrbek came home with out, got the force and took the return throw for a double play. The Twins had survived and it was still a scoreless tie.
Minnesota finally threatened off Smoltz in the eighth when singles from Randy Bush and Knoblauch gave them runners on the corners with one out. Smoltz departed in favor of Stanton. Now it was the Twins’ turn to miss an opportunity. After Puckett was intentionally walked, Hrbek hit a line drive to short that was caught by Belliard. Knoblauch drifted to far off second and was doubled off.
Another rally by the Twins in the ninth had them on the verge of a title. Davis singled and Harper beat out his bunt. Pena came on from the pen. He got Mack to ground into a double play and kept his team alive.
For a 0-0 game, this was positively action-packed. Morris was still in and completed the 10th inning without drama. Pena came back for the bottom of the inning. Gladden led off with a double and was bunted up to third by Knoblauch. Cox ordered both Puckett and Hrbek intentionally walked to create the double play possibility.
Gene Larkin had provided quality depth to Kelly’s bench all season long. Now it was his time to be a hero. He lofted a fly ball to left. It would have been deep enough to score Gladden on a sac fly no matter what and because the Braves’ outfield was drawn in, it landed for a single. One of the baseball’s great World Series and one of its greatest games was over, 1-0 for the Twins.
Morris was an easy choice for World Series MVP. In this three starts, he had worked 23 innings and posted a 1.17 ERA, capped off by a ten-inning shutout in Game 7. As heroic as Puckett’s Game 6 had been, he only hit .250 for the series. Knoblauch’s .308 batting average for the seven games was the only offensive performance of note for the Twins.
Pendleton had a good series for the Braves, going 11-for-30 with two home runs. His key failures to drive in a run against Morris in Game 7 do stand out, but it also has to be said that if not for Lonnie Smith’s baserunning blunder, Pendleton would have driven in the winning run in that game and a serious candidate for series MVP himself. Smoltz had been brilliant, pitching over 14 innings and allowing just two runs. Stanton’s bullpen efforts deserve kudos, as he tossed 7 1/3 innings over the course of five games and did not allow a run.
In the end, the 1991 World Series was Minnesota’s moment, but the Twins have not been back to the Fall Classic since. October of 1991 proved to be just the beginning for Atlanta. They would be back in the World Series again in 1992, 1996 and 1999 and in between, they won it all in 1995.