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The May 13 game at Yankee Stadium had not gone well for the Minnesota Twins and their rightfielder, Tom Brunansky. In one of their patented come-from-ahead losses, the Twins had blown an eight-run lead and lost to the Yankees 9-8 on Don Mattingly's three-run homer off reliever Ron Davis. All Brunansky had to show for the evening was a walk, one piddling grounder and three fly balls.
Several years ago, bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek had persuaded Brunansky to forget about past failures and concentrate on future challenges. That's what he was doing now. "Montefusco," he said, referring to John (The Count) Montefusco, the Yankee pitcher he'd be facing the next night. Brunansky recalled the entry he put in a scratch pad describing a previous at bat against Montefusco, on May 7. "He threw six straight sliders and struck me out. He uses a funny cross-fire motion—the ball looks over when it's outside. I'll have to be patient and wait for a pitch I can hit."
When he faced Montefusco in the second inning the next night, Brunansky didn't have to wait long. Montefusco threw a slider over the outside corner for a called strike and then hung a changeup. Uncoiling, Brunansky took an old-fashioned uppercut swing with his 35-ounce, 33-inch rosewood-tinted bat and lashed the ball into the leftfield stands for the Twins' first run in another heartbreaking 10-7 loss.
At week's end the Twins were third in the AL West at 20-16 with a strange combination of good starters, terrible relievers and unmatched (.301) hitters. Brunansky, their hitting man's thinker, was playing like a leading candidate for Most Valuable Player. He was second in batting (.348), runs batted in (31), homers (11), on-base percentage (.445) and slugging (.666); and tied for first in total bases (88). Impressively, he had struck out only 16 times in 132 at bats.
Brunansky started to keep notes on pitchers last season. Under each name he marks the date, all the pitches thrown and the result. "I found I'd been recognizing the face but not the pitches," he says. "As I walked back to the dugout after striking out, I'd remember, 'Oh, yeah, he likes to throw sidearm sliders with two strikes.' The notebook refreshes me for guys I've seen and new players I might forget. With our schedule, it's especially helpful. We faced Baltimore last week, but we won't see them for two more months."
In three previous years with the Twins, Brunansky hit like the Minnesota weather: He had almost nonexistent springs and hot-to-boiling summers. The pattern: feeling nervous and chasing bad pitches in the spring, settling down by the All-Star break. This spring he had good reason to feel unusually relaxed. First, new batting coach Tony Oliva taught Brunansky to move up in the box against breaking-ball specialists and suggested that he work all pitchers for favorable counts. Then the Twins signed him to a six-year, $6.1 million contract. Brunansky abandoned his home-run-or-bust mentality and learned to bat for situations; he's as happy about a timely single as a round-tripper and already has more sacrifice flies (five) than he had all last season (four). "When he had two strikes on him last year, he was dead," says Oliva. "He's not so anxious anymore."
In the season opener against California, Brunansky dubbed a three-run homer to beat his old high school adversary and Angel teammate, Mike Witt. Brunansky has been hitting steadily ever since. Mindful that he once had four homers in six midsummer at bats, some Twin followers are still waiting for him to catch fire. Not Brunansky. "I won't help the team as a hot-and-cold-running hitter," he says. "I'd rather be consistent."
That would be more in keeping with his methodical approach. A former A student at California's West Covina High, he studies baseball as if it's always exam time. He's one of the best defensive rightfielders in the league, and he still shags flies with the pitchers. He wears a T shirt with a drawing of Hall of Famer Frank Robinson extending his arms while swinging. The caption reads USE YOUR HANDS: THROW THE HEAD. "A good reminder," Brunansky says.
Brunansky, 24, stands 6'4", weighs 211 pounds and is known as Bruno. He wears a Keystone Kops mustache on his round face, has blue eyes, and has the habit of pushing his cap back over his brown hair when he's talking. He may be a leader in the clubhouse—the kind of guy who can help a young player like centerfielder Kirby Puckett adjust to the majors—but he's also a maniacal practical joker. When Puckett and pitcher John Butcher were being interviewed on television recently, Brunansky prepared pie tins of menthol shaving cream and gave them face jobs. "Medicated comfort?" said Butcher. "My face is still stinging."
Brunansky almost went too far the day he met his fianc�e, Colleen Schumann. Colleen's sister Cindy is married to Minnesota catcher Dave Engle, and Engle had offered to introduce Tom and Colleen. But on the appointed day Brunansky was too shy. He left the clubhouse and furtively eyed Colleen from behind his shades while chatting with friends. They eventually spoke. "I wrote him that if he wanted to get together, he'd better be without the glasses," she says. So he took them off; they are scheduled to be married Oct. 26, the day of the sixth World Series game. "No problem," says Schumann. "The Twins will win in five."