The Twins were in the fourth year of a rebuilding program under manager Billy Gardner. The franchise, after some moderately successful teams in the late 1970s, let their star players—including Hall of Fame first baseman Rod Carew—go elsewhere. The Twins lost over 100 games in 1980. They were on a pace to do the same in the strike-shortened year of 1981. 1982 was only modestly better, with 92 losses. The 1984 Minnesota Twins made a jump to respectability and playing in a weak division, that was enough to make them a serious contender.
Pitching was the key to the Twins’ improvement in 1984, particularly the top three starters in their rotation. Frank Viola and Mike Smithson and John Butcher combined to make 105 starts and all had ERAs in the 3s. The back end of the rotation was a little shaky. The bullpen, with closer Ron Davis being on the erratic side with a 4.55 ERA, was problematic. But the Big Three of the rotation carried the Minnesota pitching staff to fourth in the American League for staff ERA.
Offensively, the Twins got a big year from first baseman Kent Hrbek. With 27 home runs, 107 RBI and a stat line of .383 on-base percentage/.522 slugging percentage, Hrbek finished second in the AL MVP voting.
Tom Brunansky was in right field and he homered 32 times and drove in 85 runs. But the rest of the lineup was spotty. Kirby Puckett was embarking on a Hall of Fame career, but in 1984, Puckett was a rookie enduring his growing pains. Ron Washington provided a .447 slugging percentage at shortstop, but was only a part-time player.
Gary Gaetti at third base, Tim Teufel at second and Tim Laudner behind the plate had some good years over the course of their careers. But 1984 wasn’t one of them. The Twins’ offense finished 11th in the American League for runs scored.
The divisional alignment and playoff format of baseball at the time had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place team could go to the postseason. In general, that naturally meant it was more difficult to get to the playoffs than it would be today. But the unique circumstances of 1984 were a boon for the Twins.
They lost the first two games of the season in Detroit. The Tigers were on their way to a breathtaking 35-5 start, and would end up winning 104 games and eventually the World Series. But unlike today, Minnesota and Detroit did not share a division. The Tigers went East, the Twins went West. And no one in the AL West was making a name for themselves in the season’s early going.
Minnesota’s first signs of life came when they swept defending World Series champion Baltimore three straight, scoring 29 runs in the process. In early May, the Twins swept a six-game homestand from the A’s and Angels. Toronto was a problem—the Blue Jays beat the Twins all five times they played in the season’s early going. But Minnesota reached Memorial Day with a 23-24 record.
It was marked improvement from where the club had been in recent years. And while it would have left them in a 14-game hole to Detroit and in fourth place in the AL East, it was good enough to be within a half-game of the lead in the AL West—the division where no one was over .500 and everyone was within four games of each other.
Minnesota lost three of four at home to Kansas City and slipped as low as 28-33 and 4 ½ games off the pace. But on the return trip to KC, the Twins’ pitching came through. Butcher tossed a three-hit shutout and Minnesota only allowed two runs combined in a three-game sweep. They followed that up by taking two of three from the defending division champion Chicago White Sox and closed the first half by winning three of four from the Yankees.
By the All-Star break, the Twins’ record was 43-41. They were only a game behind the first-place White Sox. The AL West was still a packed race, with everyone except Seattle and Texas within four games of the lead.
The late summer opened with a heavy diet of games against Oakland, California and Seattle, twenty games on the road and at home. The Twins played good baseball and won 13 of those games. They took over first place and led by a game and a half. Minnesota continued to gain steam through August and their record reached a peak of 67-59 on August 23. They were five games up on the field in the AL West. The first division title since 1970 was shockingly in sight.
But those pesky Blue Jays were again a problem. Toronto came into Minnesota and won three of four. The Twins lost three straight on the return trip to Canada and dropped a series to the Red Sox in between. By Labor Day, Minnesota still held the lead, but the record was now 69-67 and the lead back to a single game. Kansas City and California were in hot pursuit. Chicago had fallen off the pace.
It was the Twins, Royals and Angels that would fight this race to the finish. And the first big showdown of September started when Minnesota visited Kansas City on Labor Day evening to start a three-game series.
Butcher was outstanding in the opener, working into the eighth inning and winning 4-1. But the bats fell silent the next two nights, with the Twins on the wrong side of two more 4-1 decisions. The Royals and Twins were still in a dead heat a week later when Kansas City came north to Minnesota. California was a half-game back.
Behind three hits from Puckett, the Twins again took the opener, this time 7-3. Viola delivered a gem in the middle game, winning 5-1 with help from an inside-the-park home run by Hrbek and a conventional blast from Brunansky.
Even though another good outing from Butcher went to waste in a 3-2 loss in the Wednesday finale, Minnesota had won a big series. They gave it back with three losses in four games at home to Chicago, needing a 13-inning win to avoid a devastating sweep. But, continuing to put the good people of Minnesota on an emotional roller-coaster, the Twins swept a series from the lowly Cleveland Indians.
When the final week of the season started, Minnesota and Kansas City were both 80-75. California was a game and a half back. The Angels and Royals would open the week against each other, while the Twins paid a return visit to the White Sox.
Minnesota won 8-4 on Monday night, but KC swept a doubleheader—exactly the kind of decisive outcome the Twins didn’t need. Then Minnesota’s pitching, so reliable all year long, gave up 17 runs over the next two nights and lost both games. Kansas City picked up another win over California and finished off the Angels.
On Thursday night, the Twins began their final series of the season in Cleveland. Davis blew a save in a 4-3 loss. Minnesota slipped two back of idle Kansas City who began their final weekend in Oakland.
Over the course of their franchise history, the Minnesota Twins have had some infamous failings in big games, most notably in recent years against the Yankees. But it’s tough to fathom a bigger collapse than what happened on Friday night in Cleveland. After staking Viola to a 10-0 lead…yes, 10 to 0…the Twins lost 11-10. The Royals won later that night in Oakland and wrapped up the division.
It was an extremely disappointing way to end a nice season. The Twins finished 81-81. Yes, the AL East had the top five teams in the American League and that’s why Minnesota could stay in contention to the final weekend, but the .500 finish was an unqualified success after where the organization had been at in recent years.
The more disappointing part is that 1985 and 1986 saw the Twins slip back to irrelevance. But in 1987, with a new manager in Tom Kelly, the core talent that emerged in 1984—Hrbek, Brunansky, Gaetti, Puckett and Viola had more experience, more help and they won the World Series.