- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Ten minutes after the Minnesota Twins had extended their winning streak to 15 games on Sunday with a 4-2 win over the Indians in Cleveland, Twins backup catcher Junior Ortiz sat in the whirlpool and breathed a sigh of relief. In a smiling reprise of Lou Gehrig's famous line, Ortiz said, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Minnesota had gone 14-0 with Ortiz on the disabled list; Sunday's game was his first one back on the active roster. "If we had lost today," continued Ortiz, "the guys would have beat the hell out of me. I was afraid to jinx us. I thought I was the only way we could lose."
No, Junior, not even you could stop the rampaging Twins. Their weekend sweep of Cleveland gave them sole possession of first place in the American League West for the first time since the final day of the 1987 season, the year they won the World Series. As of Sunday, Minnesota had trailed its opponents for a total of only eight innings during the streak. Its 15 consecutive victories were only four short of the American League record (last achieved in 1947 by the New York Yankees) and represented the longest winning streak in the majors since the Kansas City Royals won 16 straight in '77. "Now that I'm off the hook," said Ortiz, "I hope we win 40 in a row."
Nothing seems impossible in the year of the streak in the American League West. The division's teams (all seven of which have spent time in first place this year) have produced 11 winning streaks of at least five games, compared with nine such streaks by the major leagues' three other divisions combined. With the Texas Rangers having won 14 straight in May, this is the first season since 1906 that the American League has had two winning streaks of that length.
"Fifteen straight," said first baseman Kent Hrbek after the Twins had escaped a bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning on Sunday and then scored twice in the 10th to beat the Indians. "I can't beat my wife in pool 15 straight times."
Some might argue that Jeanie Hrbek provides tougher opposition than the teams Minnesota had been beating. Over the streak's two weeks, the Twins had played only the Indians, the Baltimore Orioles, the Royals and the Yankees, four of the league's worst clubs. Cleveland alone provided seven of the 15 wins. "Let 'em [the critics] talk," says Minnesota pitcher Jack Morris. "They're all major league teams. Everyone plays 'em."
There's a difference between the Twins' streak and the Rangers'. Texas won with a white-hot run of hitting and a healthy dose of divine intervention—and then lost 11 of 12 games after its bats cooled down and its shaky pitching was exposed. Minnesota, however, fashioned its streak with a combination of standout defense, hitting (.300 average) and pitching (2.17 ERA). "We won some real tough, close games," says Twins infielder Al Newman. "I think this team is, overall, much better than the '87 team."
The 1991 version doesn't have the firepower of the '87 Twins, but the starting rotation, the deep bullpen led by closer Rick Aguilera, and the defense are making believers out of the many skeptics who picked Minnesota to finish last, which is where it ended up last season. "The Twins are good; they'll be a factor all year," says Toronto Blue Jay scout Gordon Lakey. Says Cleveland pitching coach Mark Wiley, who should know, "They're near the top of the league in hitting and pitching, and their defense is so underrated. If they stay healthy, they're in good shape."
The Twins were in bad shape the first two weeks of the season. On April 21, they were 2-9. That day, 23-year-old righthander Scott Erickson, who was 0-2, beat the California Angels 4-3. Through Sunday, he had won a single-season club-record 10 straight decisions, and the Twins had gone 36-16 during that span. Since Sept. 1, 1990, Erickson has been the majors' best pitcher, going 15-2 with a 1.52 ERA. Those staggering stats don't impress Erickson. "What good will they do me in my next start?" he says.
If Erickson is not easily impressed, he's not easily daunted, either. When he was a sophomore at Homestead High in Cupertino, Calif., friends persuaded him to go out for football, even though the season was half over. "I'd never played football in my life," says Erickson. "I practiced Monday and started Friday. But I'd watched a lot of football on TV."
As a linebacker and tight end, Erickson got several college scholarship offers; as a pitcher who went 3-6 his senior year, he got none. The New York Mets drafted him in the 36th round in 1986, but he decided to play for San Jose City College. He was drafted in the 34th round by the Houston Astros in '87 and in the 44th by Toronto in '88, but he declined to sign each time. In the fall of '88, Erickson enrolled at Arizona, where he set the Wildcats' single-season record for wins, with 18. He did it, however, with a fastball clocked at only 84 mph—supposedly a symptom of overwork. "No," he says, "I was just lifting [weights] so much."