Twins' trio of left-handed relievers shut down A'sPosted: Tuesday October 01, 2002 11:17 PM
By Stephen Cannella, Sports Illustrated
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Before Game 1 of Minnesota's AL Division Series showdown with Oakland, Twins center fielder Torii Hunter stood in the glaring early afternoon California sun and chatted with his A's counterpart, Terrence Long.
Hunter plays his home games in one of the more ophthalmologically challenging outfields in the majors, the white-roofed Metrodome, where every fly ball has the potential to be an adventure.
Long can sympathize. He endures several day games a year at Network Associates Coliseum, where tracking the ball on a clear day is the rough equivalent of catching watermelon seeds in your mouth while staring into a solar eclipse.
During their conversation Long pointed to the sky and made the sign of the cross to Hunter. "Today was the first time I really experienced some fear out there," Hunter said. "He was saying, 'God bless you, brother.'"
Hunter should have returned the blessing. The Twins did struggle with the sun, but Long and the Aís would have to deal with an equally dazzling obstacle -- the Twins' bullpen. Much of the talk before this series centered on Oaklandís rotation and Minnesotaís poor track record against left-handed pitching.
But the deciding factor in the Twinsí 7-5 victory was Oaklandís inability to do any damage against the three left-handers who paraded out of the Minnesota pen. Johan Santana, J.C. Romero and closer Eddie Guardado held the Aís to four hits and no runs over the final four innings.
While they were slamming the door, the Twins were rallying. Said Oakland manager Art Howe, "Their bullpen did a heck of a job keeping us off the board."
Itís a unique group. Most teams would kill to have one quality left-hander in the bullpen. The Twins have three, all of whom are as comfortable facing right-handed hitters as they are left-handers.
Santana, who made 14 starts and 13 relief appearances this year, held righties to a .216 average this season, barely higher than lefties hit off of him (.195). Romero (.211 versus .216) and Guardado (.200 versus .263) did better against righties than lefties.
For Santana and Romero, that versatility lies in their above-average stuff. Santana handcuffs hitters on both sides of the plate with a nasty changeup and a sharp slider.
Romero features a 94-mph sinker, a pitch most lefties canít throw with such velocity.
"Itís one of the best youíll ever see from a left-hander," said Minnesota catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "And Eddie just wills himself to get the job done. Heíll be first to admit that his stuff isnít the best."
The result is an unusual look for opposing hitters -- lefties who donít go running for the showers as soon as a right-handed hitter steps to the plate. One of the key at-bats of the game was Romeroís eight-pitch showdown with Miguel Tejada with two out in the eighth inning.
With a runner on first and Minnesota clinging to a two-run lead, Romero caught the Oaklandís MVP candidate looking with a nasty slider on the corner.
"We saw lot of situations when you tell yourself to bring a right-hander in," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "But I have all the confidence in world that our left-handers can get anybody out."
The Aís found that out in Game 1. If the Twins are to win this series, they must turn every contest into a similar battle of the bullpens. Oaklandís rotation is imposing. Minnesota has a late-game group that may be just as intimidating.