The state of Minnesota had been electrified in 1991 when their beloved Twins completed a magical worst-to-first turnaround by winning a dramatic World Series, their second title in five years. The 1992 Minnesota Twins didn’t achieve those same heights—but even though they lost some key performers from that ’91 team, this ’92 edition of the Twins were still a good, solid baseball team that stayed in contention much of the season.
Jack Morris, the veteran starting pitcher who was the hero of the World Series, left via free agency. So did outfielder Dan Gladden, who had scored the winning run in Game 7. The Twins were in a tough division. In the pre-1994 alignment, they were in the AL West. The Oakland A’s had won three straight pennants from 1988-90 and were looking to get back on top. There was no wild-card berth available in this era, so Minnesota had no margin for error.
In the middle of spring training, the Twins made a big move to cover for the loss of Morris. The Pittsburgh Pirates were a regular contender, but starting to dump salaries. They were looking to unload 20-game winner John Smiley. Minnesota picked up the lefty on the cheap.
Smiley and Kevin Tapani would each win 16 games in 1992. Scott Erickson won 13. These three starters all finished with ERAs in the 3s and were the core of a reliable rotation. Bill Krueger was a manageable fourth starter, going 10-6 with a 4.30 ERA.
The fifth spot went back and forth between Willie Banks and 21-year-old Pat Mahomes—and yes, the latter is the father of the current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback who has lit up the NFL and won a Super Bowl.
Manager Tom Kelly had a deep bullpen to rely on. Carl Willis, Tom Edens and Mark Guthrie all had ERAs in the high 2s and all got steady work. The same went for closer Rick Aguilera, who slammed the door on 41 saves. All told, the Minnesota pitching staff ended up third in the American League in ERA.
The everyday lineup was keyed by the great centerfielder Kirby Puckett. A hero of the previous October himself, Puckett had his best season in 1992. His stat line was .374 on-base percentage/.490 slugging percentage, he scored 104 runs and drove in 110. It was enough to place second in the American League MVP voting.
Puckett wasn’t the only outfielder who could hit. Shane Mack got the playing time that opened up with Gladden’s departure and Mack’s stat line was .394/.467. Chuck Knoblauch, the feisty young second baseman had a .384 OBP and stole 34 bases. Kent Hrbek’s power dipped, but the first baseman at least posted a .357 OBP. Veteran DH Chili Davis produced a stat line of .386/.439. Brian Harper’s .343 OBP was respectable by any standard and good for an everyday catcher.
There were offensive weaknesses on the left side of the infield, in right field and with depth. But led by Puckett, the Twins still ranked third in the AL in runs scored.
Minnesota started slowly, losing nine of their first fifteen games. Then they took a home series from Oakland, keyed by a 6-5 extra-innings win in the opener. It got the Twins on track and by Memorial Day, they were at 23-19 and only 2 ½ games off the pace in the AL West. Oakland led the way, the Chicago White Sox were in second and Minnesota narrowly led the Texas Rangers for third.
The Twins more or less held serve in that position until June 19. Then they got hot and ripped off 18 wins in 23 games. That included another series victory over the A’s, this one on the road. And it was capped off by taking three of four from the contending Baltimore Orioles. The winning streak pushed Minnesota into first place at the All-Star break, up 2 ½ on Oakland, 6 ½ on Texas and Chicago fading fast at 9 ½ out.
The Twins were still holding a three-game lead in late July. They went to Oakland, but this time the head-to-head battle didn’t work out so well. Minnesota pitching gave up 26 runs in three games and they lost all three. It set the stage for an August slide where the Twins went 12-17. That included three straight losses in Chicago where they were outscored 33-19. And it included three straight defeats at mediocre Cleveland where the bats went silent and only scored three runs for the series.
By Labor Day, Minnesota was 5 ½ back of Oakland and no one else was in serious shouting distance of the lead. There was still a chance, but the Twins had no time to waste. And there was a series coming up in Oakland in a week that offered a chance to change the dynamics of the race.
The Twins used that week leading up to the showdown well. They took five of six games in series with the California Angels and Seattle Mariners. The only problem was that Oakland played the same two teams and won six of seven. Minnesota was now six out when the head-to-head games began on September 14.
Monday night’s opener saw a pitching gem between Tapani and Oakland ace Dave Stewart. The score was tied 1-1 in the eighth and the bullpens were on. Edens blinked first and gave up the winning run. Minnesota lost 2-1.
Mahomes got the start on Tuesday and was outstanding. But an offense that had generated just eight singles the night before, only got two singles tonight. Another 2-1 loss was the result.
If there was any doubt the AL West race was over, they were put to bed on Wednesday’s getaway day finale. Smiley took a 1-1 tie into the fifth, but gave up three runs and lost 4-2. The only bright side was that Lenny Webster hit a double in the sixth, the only extra-base hit this offense got in the season’s biggest series.
Minnesota still played well for the balance of the season. They won 10 of their final 16 and reached the 90-win threshold. The final 90-72 record was fourth-best in the American League and tied for sixth-best in the majors. In other words, by the standards of what would exist just two years later, it was playoff-caliber.
The bigger problem was that this marked the end of Minnesota’s run of success, at least for a little while. They fell to 71-91 a year later. Winning baseball did not return to the Twin Cities until 2001, when Kelly won 85 games in his final season and set up what would be another good run for the franchise in the early 2000s.