There had been three one-run games among the first four of the 1991 World Series and the Twins and the Atlanta Braves were tied at two victories apiece. The fifth game was played Oct. 24, a Thursday night of fine Dixie weather, and the tournament seemed to take a strong turn toward the Braves.
Atlanta was leading 11-4 when Carl Willis came in for some mop-up duty in the bottom of the eighth.
“Junior Ortiz had come in the game as the catcher,” Willis said. “I had given up close to a cycle with the first few guys I faced. The Braves were hitting rockets. I looked down for the sign. Junior gave me the index finger for a fastball, and then he crossed his fingers in the ‘here’s hoping’ gesture.’ ”
Soon, the Twins trudged off to the visitors clubhouse with a 14-5 loss, and with three defeats in Atlanta that put them in a 3-2 hole heading back to the Metrodome.
What was the mood in the clubhouse?
“Junior was saying, ‘Did you see that signal, Train? … They were smoking you, man,’ ” Willis said. “There were some guys on that team who could make you laugh at anything, and Junior was one of them.”
Willis had been with Cleveland’s Class AAA farm club in Colorado Springs in 1990. He had a 6.39 ERA while allowing 169 base runners in 98 ⅔ innings.
“A year like that can test your passion for the game,” he said.
Willis had been at it for eight seasons with five organizations. It was December, he was about to turn 30, and he had no idea if he was going to get an offer as a six-year minor league free agent.
“Dwight Bernard was the roving pitching instructor for the Twins,” Willis said. “He saw me pitch one night for Colorado Springs and liked something.
‘‘That definitely made him the Lone Ranger.”
Bernard recommended Willis to minor league director Jim Rantz, and Rantz signed the 6-foot-4 righthander to a minor league deal on Dec. 12.
Willis was sent to Class AAA Portland to start the season. He pitched in three games there, David West went on the disabled list, and Willis was called up to Minnesota to serve as a long reliever.
The Twins were 2-9 when Willis was notified of his call-up. Over the next two months, the Twins went 42-18, including a 15-game winning streak as part of a 21-2 stretch.
It was during a series in Detroit that Willis took note of the team’s revival since he had arrived. Kevin Tapani was his audience, and he said to a reporter standing nearby: “Carl is tooting his own horn over here.”
Tapani then turned the horn into a train whistle, and pulled an imaginary cord to make the sound. It was on that day Willis became the Twins’ “Big Train.”
The Twins of ’91 had a less-settled bullpen than the champions of ’87. Then, it was Jeff Reardon as the closer, Juan Berenguer as the setup man, Keith Atherton in front of him, and Dan Schatzeder to get out some lefties.
As 1991 progressed, Willis and lefthander Mark Guthrie were the pitchers in front of closer of Rick Aguilera, with Steve Bedrosian, Terry Leach and West in front of them.
Willis had an eight-out outing to rescue Jack Morris in the ALCS opener vs. Toronto in the Metrodome. The Train also had two scoreless innings in the pivotal Game 3, which was won by Mike Pagliarulo’s home run in the 10th in the Skydome.
The first real misstep Willis had in the postseason came during the Game 5 crossed-fingers mugging in Atlanta.
Now, the Twins were home for Game 6, and they were clinging to a 3-2 lead in the sixth when Willis entered with the bases loaded and one out.
“I gave him the ball when he got to the mound and said, ‘Do the best you can,’ ” Tom Kelly said this week. “And when he reached for the back of his neck, I knew that’s what he was going to do.”
Willis had picked up numerous mannerisms as he tried to straighten out his pitching at Colorado Springs in 1990. They were Gaylord Perry-style gestures that caused many hitters to complain Willis was “loading up” the baseball.
“Albert Belle used to be screaming when I came in a game,” Willis said. “He was 100 percent convinced I was putting something on the baseball. I wasn’t, but if a hitter thought so, that was OK.”
Willis’ gestures were so convincing that even his manager suspected there might be a substance (soot?) to be acquired when the Train reached for the back of his neck.
In this game-turning moment, Willis’ sinker was able to get a ground ball to shortstop out of Ron Gant.
“It was hit too slow for a double play, although the way Knobby [Chuck Knoblauch] turned it, we almost got two,” Willis said.
The Train then struck out David Justice to get the Twins out of the mess at 3-3. He pitched two more perfect innings after that. And then late in the night, Kirby Puckett hit his game-winner off Charlie Leibrandt, and the Twins were alive for a Game 7.
When you look at the boxscore from Game 6, it credits Willis with a “blown save,” based on the tying run scoring when the Twins couldn’t quite turn a double play.
“I don’t remember it as a blown save,” Willis said. “I remember getting those eight outs as the highlight of my pitching career.”
One night later, Willis and everyone else in the Metrodome squirmed through Jack Morris’ 10 scoreless innings for a 1-0 victory and a second World Series title.
“It was gut-wrenching, and it was great,” Willis said. “Jack, man … he just wasn’t going to let the rest of us [pitchers] play that night.’’