The Greatest World Series of Them All
A look back at the 1991 Fall Classic between the Twins and Braves.
A few of my buddies recently had a discussion on which World Series was the best of all time. Most seemed to agree with the 1975 Series between
For me though, nothing comes close to the 1991 Championship between Minnesota and Atlanta. Five games were decided by a single run, four on the final at-bat of the game. You want heroes? There were plenty, from the light-hitting Mark Lemke, to Kirby Puckett in Game 6, and who will ever forget Jack Morris in a masterful performance in Game 7 that was one for the ages.
That both teams made it to the Series was an accomplishment. Both the Twins and Braves finished last in their respective divisions the previous year. Going from worst to first was a feat that had only previously been done by the Louisville Colonials, 101 years ago. The Twins improved their roster in the offseason via free agency. They added veteran Chili Davis, coming off a down year in California, to help protect Puckett and Kent Hrbek. Then, six days later, they added a pitcher with a reputation of being a big game pitcher in Jack Morris. And boy, did he live up to that billing for the Twins.
Meanwhile, Atlanta added a few names to their roster in the offseason as well. They got Terry Pendleton, who would win the batting title and Most Valuable Player in a close vote. They added two new infielders in Sid Bream and Rafael Belliard to a young line-up that featured future stars in David Justice and Ron Gant. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention a young pitching staff that included Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery.
Game 1 was a good ballgame. Twins starter Jack Morris improved to 3-0 in World Series starts after pitching seven strong innings and allowing only two runs on five hits. The Twins jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a Chuck Knoblauch RBI single in the 3rd and expanded the lead to 4-0 on a three run shot off the bat of Greg Gagne, the Twins number nine hitter. The final score was 5-2 but the score could have gotten a lot worse had it not been for some big plays by the Braves defense.
The first inning of Game 2 didn’t go the way the Braves had planned. Davis blasted a two-out, two-run home run into deep left-center to give the Twins an early 2-0 lead against Tom Glavine, who was making his postseason debut. Sacrifice flies by both Brian Hunter in the 2nd and Belliard in the 5th off Twins starter Kevin Tapani tied the ballgame up at deuces. This all paved way for the first hero of the â€™91 Series. Twins 3rd baseman Scott Leius led off the 8th and planted the first pitch he saw from Glavine into the seats in left field. Leius, who took over in the offseason due to the departure of Gary Gaetti, had six career home runs coming into this at-bat. The solo shot gave the Twins a 3-2 lead and, after closer Rick Aguilera struck out the side, a 2-0 series lead heading into Atlanta.
But the most memorable play in Game 2 was a controversial call at first base. Tapani fielded an overthrow at third base and threw it across the diamond to Hrbek. Gant, the batter, aggressively rounded first base and when he slid back into first, he was met by a WWE-style tag by Hrbek. However, the first base umpire, Drew Coble, believed that it was Gantâ€™s momentum that forced him off the bag. Despite a heated argument by Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, Coble stuck by his call. The call was met by cheers from Twins fans and a death threat from an Atlanta fan. How many other World Series can say they had a death threat?
Then there was Game 3, which is one of the best games of all-time. Before Game 3, Twins skipper Tom Kelly said that managing without the designated hitter was â€œright up there with rocket science.â€ After seeing the way Kelly managed his bench without the DH in Game 3, it seemed that for Kelly, it was harder than rocket science.
With the score 4-2 in favor of the Braves in the top of the eighth, Kelly pinch-hit Brian Harper for his starting catcher, Junior Ortiz. Harper got on via a Pendleton error; bringing up the pitchers slot, where Kelly put his regular DH, Chili Davis into the ballgame. The Braves countered by putting their regular closer, Alejandro Pena, into the ballgame an inning early. Davis won that battle by belting his second home run of the series, a two run blast that tied the game at four.
The twelfth inning of Game 3 is one of the greatest moments of this series. After getting the first out, Braves reliever Mark Wohlers surrendered a base hit to Dan Gladden, followed by Knoblauch getting on base courtesy of an error charged to Mark Lemke, on which Gladden moved to third. Cox then brought in Kent Mercker, who struck out Hrbek. Mercker was then replaced by Jim Clancy, who would face Kirby Puckett followed by the pitcher’s spot.
Cox smartly gave Puckett the intentional pass to load the bases. Kelly, who had run out of position players on the bench, had to use his closer, Aguilera, to bat in the pitchers spot. Aguilera was probably Kellyâ€™s best option off the bench, considering he was a .201 career hitter with the Mets from 1985-1989. However, Aguilera flew out high to center field and the Twins left three on the bases.
With one out in the bottom of the twelfth, Justice knocked a single into right. After a Brian Hunter pop-out that left the Twins one out from a 13th inning, Justice stole a crucial base. With Justice now standing at second base, Mark Lemke dug into the batters box. Lemke hit .234 and knocked in only 23 runs that season in 136 games, all career highs for the fourth-year Brave. Lemke would quickly be transformed from a light-hitting second baseman into a World Series hero. Lemke ripped a single into left where it was quickly fielded by the left fielder Gladden. Gladden came up throwing but Justice beat the throw on a close play at the plate, giving the Braves a must win to cut the Series lead in half, 2-1.
The game was a new record time-wise, a marathon of 4 hours and 4 minutes, a record that stood until Game 3 of the 2005 World Series. Game 4 would start later that day as Game 3 went into midnight. With the score 1-1 in the 5th, the Twins caught two breaks. With one out and Lonnie Smith on second, Terry Pendleton ripped one over Puckettâ€™s head. However, Smith tagged up and when he realized the ball was falling, he tried to score. But a beautiful relay between Puckett and Knoblauch made for a play at the plate, where Smith collided with the catcher Harper. Harper hung on to the ball but Pendleton advanced to third. A few pitches later, Morris uncorked one of his wild splitters and Pendleton tried to score but Harper pounced on the ball and tagged Pendleton at home plate. Two costly base running mistakes ran the Braves out of the inning.
The teams traded home runs in the seventh, making the game 2-2 and setting up another classic finish. With one out in the Atlanta 9th, Lemke found himself at the center of the baseball world again, this time tripling of the left-field wall. After Jeff Blauser walked, career minor leaguer Jerry Willard stepped to the plate for the Braves, hitting in the pitcher’s spot. Willard lifted a fly ball to right fielder Shane Mack. Mack made the play, then threw a dart to Harper trying to nail Lemke trying to score. At first glance, it looked as though Lemke had been thrown out but not in the eyes of home plate umpire Terry Tata, who called Lemke safe, a call Harper vigorously protested. Upon further review, Tata made the correct call as Harper did not apply a tag on Lemke. The series had been tied at two.
Game 5 was the black sheep of the â€™91 Series. The Braves won 14-5, thanks to 17 hits off of five Minnesota pitchers. The Braves carried a 3-2 series lead into the Metrodome for Game 6. The Braves sent their postseason ace Steve Avery to the hill to close out the series. Avery had one of the greatest NLCS ever, shutting out the Pirates over 16 1/3 innings. The Twins sent out Scott Erickson, a 20-game winner during the regular season, to try and keep Minnesota alive. While Game 3 was the better ballgame, Game 6 is my favorite game of this series to rewatch. The Twins took a quick 2-0 lead on Avery in the first, thanks to an RBI triple from Puckett and an RBI single from Shane Mack, who was previously 0-for-15 in the series.
The Braves were ripping the ball off of Erickson, but couldnâ€™t seem to buy a hit. For example, with Pendleton on first in the third, Gant ripped a sure extra-base hit to center field. Kirby Puckett leaped and made a spectacular catch against the 13-foot Plexiglas fence and instead of the Braves scoring their first run, Pendleton was stranded on first base and the Twins lead stayed at 2-0.
In the fifth, Rafael Belliard led off with a single for the Braves. Lonnie Smith then followed what looked to be a sure fire 5-4-3 double play, but Belliard slid hard into second base, breaking up the double play. Belliardâ€™s hard-nosed play paid dividends for the Braves as the next batter, Terry Pendleton, homered off of Erickson to tie it up at 2.
Fast-forward to the 11th now with the game tied at three. Manager Cox, perhaps wanting to save his bullpen if a long game was ahead, put in Game 1 starter Charlie Leibrandt to face Kirby Puckett. Puckett took the first three pitches of the inning and then launched Leibrandtâ€™s fourth and final pitch, a weak hanging change-up, into the left-center field seats. The home run gave the Twins a 4-3 win and tied the series up at 3.
The home run was an instant classic. It, along with Jack Buckâ€™s famous call â€œWeâ€™ll see youâ€¦tomorrow night!,â€ ranks right up there with my two favorite all-time World Series home runs: Kirk Gibsonâ€™s in â€™88 and Joe Carterâ€™s (As a Jays fan, Iâ€™m a tad partial) a year later. It sent the Metrodome into a frenzy, there would be a Game 7 in this fabulous series.
Game 7 featured a terrific pitcher’s duel. John Smoltz would toe the rubber for the Braves, while the Twins would send out Jack Morris, the big game pitcher who was 3-0 in World Series play coming into the game. Smoltz, a Detroit native, idolized Morris, the ex-Tiger, as a kid and they would together be a big part of an intense battle on both sides. Before the first pitch, lead-off hitter Lonnie Smith shook the hand of Twinsâ€™ catcher Brian Harper. The long and enduring series would now be decided by one final game.
The first seven innings of Game 7 were pitched to perfection by both pitchers, with neither team really getting an opportune chance to score. In the 8th, the Braves got the first scoring chance on Morris. Lonnie Smith singled followed by a double off the bat of Pendleton. With two runners in scoring position, Gant weakly tapped out to first base, holding the runners. Morris then gave an intentional pass to Justice to set up a double play. In a back-breaker for the Braves, Sid Bream grounded into a 3-2-3 double play to end the inning and allow Minnesota to come out unscathed.
The Twins had a base loaded chance in the 8th inning as well but Kent Hrbek lined into a double play to end the inning and the game remained scoreless after eight. After pitching a beautiful one-two-three 9th, Morris was told by Kelly he was done. But Jack wanted to finish. As one reporter said, “[Morris] could have outlasted Methuselah.”
Seeing Morris go out to the mound in the 10th when I rewatch this game gives me chills down my spine, the same way seeing Gibson walk out of the Los Angeles dugout to the on-deck circle does to me. You realize that this may never happen again, another pitcher throwing 10 innings of efficient baseball in a game of this magnitude. Morris retired the Braves in order in an 8-pitch 10th and the game remained deadlocked at zeros. Watching Morris stride off the mound in the 10th, I remember thinking to myself, â€œThere is no way they donâ€™t win it right here. Just no way.â€
The first pitch of the Twins’ half of the inning was blooped into the outfield for a double by a hustling Dan Gladden. After a successful Knoblauch sacrifice that moved Gladden to third, Alejandro Pena, issued the double intentional pass to Hrbek and Puckett, the latter being his third free pass of the day. Kelly made a risky call that paid off. He elected to pinch hit the injured Gene Larkin and risk the for-sure inning ending double play on any ball hit on the ground. Larkin lifted the first pitch he saw from Pena over the drawn-in Braves outfield to give the Twins the Game 7 win and the Series victory.
The 1991 World Series had everything a baseball fan wants, seven fabulous games of baseball with heroic performances from many players. Lemke and his play in Games 3 and 4, Puckettâ€™s home run in Game 6 and of course, who will ever forget Jack Morris and his artwork in Game 7. This was the greatest series of them all.