It was the home half of the sixth inning at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. last Saturday afternoon and the second-place Twins were trailing the first-place Chicago White Sox 1-0. Zoilo Versalles, the temperamental Twin shortstop, was on first base with nobody out when Rich Rollins hit a single to short left field. Versalles, with never a hesitation, whirled past second base and bolted for third as the players on both benches jumped up. Fifteen feet from his destination Versalles put his little head down, dived on his stomach and skimmed over the hard dirt, his arms groping for the base. He was safe on a close play and a minute later tagged up and scored the tying run on a fly ball. An inning later Versalles drove in a run to put Minnesota ahead, and the Twins went on to win 4-1.
Over the past two weekends the Twins and the White Sox played seven games filled with tension, excitement and stirring individual performances. "They have been like World Series games," said Al Lopez, the White Sox manager. The Twins won four of the seven, but the most significant thing about the games was that the supposedly pitching-poor Twins were pitching very well and the White Sox, often accused of lacking power, outhomered Minnesota 9 to 5.
This week, as the American League moved into its sixth week of competition. Chicago and Minnesota and the Los Angeles Angels were controlling the pennant race, usually the prerogative of the New York Yankees. Before the season began, many people thought that the Yankees, even at full strength, would have to scramble to win a sixth straight pennant and their 15th championship in 17 seasons. But the Yankees are not at full strength. They are an unsound team, with their four major stars—Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard and Whitey Ford—all either sidelined or severely hampered by arm and leg ailments.
Last Friday night, after the news reached Minnesota that the Yankees had lost a doubleheader to the Washington Senators and plummeted into ninth place, Bill Skowron was asked what he thought about New York's chances of winning the 1965 pennant. Skowron, for nine years a Yankee and now the Chicago White Sox first baseman, took his blue cap off and put it on his lap, raised his fist over his head and brought it down slowly with his thumb pointing directly toward the ground.
As bad as the Yankees looked, no one truly expected them to remain permanently in the second division, but the question of catching up with the new league leaders was another matter. New York had yet to play the White Sox and the dangerous Detroit Tigers but, even so, the Yankees had a weak 5-10 record against first-division contenders and they had fallen half a dozen games behind the Chicago-Minnesota- Los Angeles trio. Los Angeles might not be anything to worry about, but the other two are a different story.
Chicago reached first place early this season by getting excellent results from carefully matured but virtually unknown sources. When one thinks of White Sox pitchers one usually thinks of left-handers Gary Peters and Juan Pizarro, who won 74 games between them for the Sox over the last two seasons. Hoyt Wilhelm, the 41-year-old relief pitcher who appeared in 73 games last year, also jumps to mind. But not this year—or, at any rate, not so far this year. Gary Peters currently carries the worst earned run average among the White Sox starting pitchers. Wilhelm has been having trouble with his knuckle ball and gave up four home runs in 7? innings. Through last Sunday, Pizarro had pitched a total of one inning. " Pizarro reported late," explained General Manager Ed Short, "and he was wild in his one game. He is going to have to fight his way back into the starting rotation." But never mind Pizarro and Wilhelm and Peters. Six other White Sox pitchers with names like Howard and Horlen and Buzhardt had earned run averages ranging from 0.75 to 2.87; Eddie Fisher, who has an excellent knuckle ball, had moved to the head of the bullpen and finished seven games.
"The team I have now," Al Lopez said the other day, "is probably the most versatile I have ever had. I like my bench." Lopez should like his bench. He has sent 25 pinch hitters to the plate, and 14 have reached base. What with deep pitching and a deep bench, Chicago has been very consistent. On the White Sox statistics sheet one day last week there was an ominous note for the other American League teams. It said: "Streaks—longest winning: 5 games (twice); longest losing: 1 game."
While everyone assumed that the White Sox would be near the top of the league from the beginning of the season to the end, the Twins have been something of a surprise, overlooked in preseason predictions because of their disastrous second-division finish last year. But they are playing a brisk, lively style of baseball totally unlike Minnesota teams of the past. The Twins are running the bases with daring, and they are using the hit-and-run instead of waiting around for someone to knock the ball over the fence. Last year when they knocked 221 balls over the fence they finished in a tie for sixth. "The entire season," says Manager Sam Mele, "was a nightmare. In my mind we played the very same game against Baltimore five or six times. It would be the seventh, eighth or ninth inning and we would walk a man. Then Baltimore would bunt and one of my guys would come in, pick up the bunt and throw it away, and Baltimore would score and win. Last year we played good ball against New York and Chicago, but Baltimore! I would stand in the dugout and see the walk, and I would say to myself, 'No, it can't happen again. Yes, it can. I can see it coming. There's the bunt. Watch it get thrown away. Watch it go. There it goes. Ball game.' "
Over the winter Mele decided that the Twins were going to play a different type of ball, and in spring training he took his largely veteran team back to the dreary land of fundamentals. Before and after every workout he had the Twins practice fielding bunts, back-up plays and the cutoff. Even after the exhibition schedule began, Mele kept his team on the field and drilled it in the little things. He told his players to run. "If you feel it is a good gamble," he said, "take it. Never mind what anyone says. I'll be responsible for it." He told them to think about the hit-and-run, and when they showed that they did not really care too much for it he began to call it for them. Soon they began to like to run the bases, and they saw the advantages of the hit-and-run. All of them, of course, had seen the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Yankees in the World Series last year by running, and in the very first game this season they ran on Yankee Center Fielder Tom Tresh and won the game because of it. When they played the Yankees in New York a couple of weeks later they beat them again with running, and then with good pitching. When the Twins are batting and an opposition player misses a cutoff man on a relay or throws to the wrong base, Mele walks up and down his dugout stressing the importance of running and defense against running. At the end of their first 20 games last season the Twins had a record of 10-10, had hit 36 home runs, stolen six bases, had seven sacrifices and sacrifice flies and had hit into 16 double plays. At the end of 20 games this year Minnesota had hit into only 11 double plays, had 12 sacrifices and sacrifice flies, had stolen 10 bases, had hit only 21 home runs but had a team record of 13-7.
This sudden improvement and change of style by the Twins has impressed the rest of the American League. Birdie Tebbetts, manager of the Cleveland Indians, was amazed to see Minnesota running with home run hitters like Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison at the plate. "Mele is smart," says Tebbetts. "You can't wait for homers. It's smart to use the speed with those hitters up. The Twins have the talent, and if they get good pitching in the summer, when you have to use all your pitchers, they can be in the race all the way."