- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2002

OAKLAND, Calif. Their season was falling apart before their eyes, 162 games of winning baseball disappearing in a sea of botched defensive plays and scoring opportunities.

The Minnesota Twins, though, have been given up for dead before. Heck, they were supposed to be contracted before this season ever began.

So it really should come as no surprise that the never-say-die Twins, staring at playoff disaster just two innings into Game 1 yesterday, stormed back to beat the Oakland Athletics 7-5 and seize control of the American League Division Series.

No, it shouldn't come as a surprise, given the Twins' history of these kind of things. Just don't tell that to the A's or the surprisingly small crowd of 34,853 at Network Associates Coliseum that trudged away utterly stunned by the developments of the last 3 hours, 44 minutes.

"We keep battling every night and every inning. We don't quit," said Twins center fielder Torii Hunter, whose animated dugout tirade in the second inning helped break his teammates out of their funk. "It's never over 'til the fat lady sings. She sang."

Things might be nearly over for the 103-win A's, who entered the series as overwhelming favorites but face a must-win situation today. The last thing Oakland needs is to head to the raucous Metrodome staring at an 0-2 deficit.

"What we have gone through the last two years should show us that this isn't the end of the road," said manager Art Howe, whose club beat the Yankees in Game 1 both in 2000 and 2001, only to lose both series in five games.

Howe sounded less optimistic, though, when asked to assess the mental state of his team. Said Howe: "They are teed off."

They should be. The A's appeared on their way to an easy victory after opening up a 5-1 lead against the shell-shocked Twins, who committed four defensive blunders (three of them ruled errors) in the first two innings despite their reputation as the majors' best fielding team.

An off-line throw to second by shortstop Cristian Guzman and a missed play at the plate by catcher A.J. Pierzynski led to a three-run first inning for Oakland. But those blunders paled in comparison to what happened one inning later.

Twins starter Brad Radke seemed to be in good shape, even after surrendering a two-out double to Ray Durham. Scott Hatteberg followed with a high infield popup that looked like the third out of the inning. A quartet of Minnesota players, however, somehow managed to lose sight of the ball in the high California sky. Radke, Pierzynski, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and third baseman Corey Koskie converged in front of the mound, then watched the ball fall.

Durham raced all the way around to score, Hatteberg was safe at first and the Twins were left trying to figure out what in the world was going on.

"I kind of saw it," Radke said. "I looked at A.J., then I realized I hadn't heard anyone call for it. I kind of lost it after that. It all happened so fast."

The nightmare still wasn't over. Koskie committed a throwing error on the next batter, ultimately allowing another run to score. And when Jermaine Dye's popup to first was nearly mishandled again, Hunter decided he had seen enough.

Minnesota's best all-around player stormed into the dugout between innings and let his teammates have it during an impassioned and impromptu speech. His message: "We're better than this."

Said Mientkiewicz: "Torii Hunter came off the field really livid. He said, 'We've waited our whole lives for this. Don't screw it up.'

"We needed it. We needed someone to stick a foot up our butts."

The Twins took Hunter's words to heart. Koskie made amends for his error by blasting a two-run homer off Oakland starter Tim Hudson in the third "a huge pick-me-up," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. Mientkiewicz later cut the lead to 5-4 with a shot of his own leading off the sixth.

In a somewhat surprising move, Howe decided to pull Hudson after one more batter, though Mientkiewicz later said he thought "that's the worst I've seen him pitch." Ted Lilly, usually the A's No.5 starter, came on in relief, gave up three straight hits, a walk and an RBI groundout that put the Twins ahead for the first time all day.

Pierzynski added a run-scoring triple (his fourth hit of the game) in the seventh off Cory Lidle, and Minnesota's unheralded trio of left-handed relievers finished Oakland off. Johan Santana came in for Radke after the fifth and went 1⅔ innings. J.C. Romero pitched 1⅓ innings, and closer Eddie Guardado escaped a two-on, two-out jam in the ninth to earn the save.

Just another run-of-the-mill ballgame for the unfazed Twins.

"I've been proud of these guys all year for playing nine innings," Gardenhire said. "We talk about playing nine innings, and that's what we did today. Well, actually, we were there for three, and then we played six."

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