Yes, while the Twins were heavy underdogs facing the powerful and experienced Tigers in the previous round, sentiments shifted as the battered and bruised Cardinals landed in town. For as much as they wanted to continue to play the role of the dark horse, suddenly people believed in the Twins’ chances. On display in the ALCS was power, pitching and solid decision-making by the rookie manager. More national media types were throwing their weight behind the team that had torn the stuffing out of Detroit in five games.
“Now that the Twins have become America’s team, I’ll say Minnesota in six games,” ESPN’s Chris Berman predicted. “Twins in six,” speculated the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Gerry Fraley. “Their pitching staff is in order. They have the first two games at home. They’re relatively healthy. The series is set up perfectly for them.” The Baltimore Sun’s Tim Kurkjian, who had doubted the Twins in the ALCS selected them as the superior team for the World Series but threw some shade by saying “the Twins will win in seven because the Cardinals are so banged up and because of the Metrodome factor.”
On the other hand, no one was counting St. Louis out either. The Cardinals were injured, sure. They were offensively depleted, yes. But they had speed and speed never slumps. They were battle tested with recent World Series experience. And they had Whitey Herzog at the helm. He had guided his team to the best record in the National League and pulled them through a bloodbath of an NLCS against the Giants. Once more into the fray and coming out the other side victorous was not an unreasonable expectation.
At 95-67, the Cardinals had finished with the National League’s best record but, in many ways, they had lost the magic they possessed during the first half of the season. At the break St. Louis led all of baseball with 56 wins. Despite pitching well and playing good defense throughout the year, it was the offense that was ablaze in the season’s first half, scoring an MLB-best 486 runs. Even though speedsters like Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith, and Tommy Herr were getting on and getting over, the vast majority of the lumber was supplied by first baseman Jack Clark, who was hitting .311/.459/.645 with an MLB leading 86 RBI at that point.
Like the rest of the Cardinals, Clark regressed some in July and August but on September 9, while playing at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, his season essentially came to an end. In the top of the sixth, Clark hit a harmless grounder off of Dennis Martinez that third baseman Tim Wallach fielded and made a wide throw to Andres Galarraga at first. In efforts to avoid Galarraga’s tag, Clark moved awkwardly and rolled his ankle. Herzog said afterward that he knew that Clark’s season was finished right then and there. Cardinals pitcher Bob Forsch later wrote that the injury was one of the “ugliest” he had ever seen, describing Clark’s foot grossly swollen and the color of an eggplant.
''Without Jack Clark in the lineup we’re missing a big weapon,'' Clark’s replacement Jim Lindeman told the New York Times. “When he walks up to the plate, he's the only guy who gets the crowd buzzing and the other team fidgeting. He's the only guy who intimidates people with his bat.''
Compounding the issue was Terry Pendleton, the Cardinals’ hitter with the second most home runs next to Clark, who pulled a muscle in his rib cage during the final game of the National League Championship Series and was not expected to participate much. “Right now it is doubtful that he will play at all,” Herzog said addressing the media before the series.
Clark and Pendleton’s absence was no doubt felt throughout the Cardinal lineup. Rather than having Clark, a hitter with a 1.055 OPS that season, Herzog was forced to use the rookie Lindeman, who possessed a .632 OPS over his last two seasons, or the 35-year-old Dan Driessen, who had spent most of the year in AAA and posted a .625 OPS in 24 games with the Cardinals. In place of Pendleton, who had posted a respectable .772 OPS that year, it was the 30-year-old Tom Lawless, owner of a career .549 OPS. The dropoff was substantial. “Two hundred RBIs,” Herzog said in regards to missing thumper Clark and third baseman Terry Pendleton in the heart of the order. “I’d say that is a hole.”
Clark led the team with 35 home runs during the regular season. After that, Pendleton’s 12 was a distant second followed by center fielder Willie McGee’s 11, who, now with Clark out and Pendleton ailing, sadly represented St. Louis’ biggest long ball threat. In fact, no other Cardinals starter managed more than five that year. Prior the series, the Star Tribune’s Doug Grow marveled at the juxtaposition of the two teams. “The Twins dig in at the plate and grunt as they play long-ball. Watch ‘em in batting practice. They love that time in the cage. They stand there and laugh and measure how far they hit it,” Grow observed. “When the St. Louis Cardinals step into the batting cage, the walls are safe from baseballs. Batting is something the Cardinals do only so they can get a chance to run.”
With so few options Herzog decided to use the right-handed part-time player in Lindeman, who had nine career home runs to his name, as his cleanup hitter against left-handed pitching in the postseason. In Game 3 of the NLCS, Lindeman responded by hitting a 1-1 fastball from San Francisco’s Atlee Hammaker over the left-center field fence for a two-run shot (one of two home runs the Cardinals hit that entire seven game series). It was his first cleanup duty since April of that year. "I think the last time I batted cleanup I probably went oh for four and broke three bats," told reporters after the game.
With another left-hander on the mound from Minnesota in Game 1 and the switch-hitting Pendleton unable to swing from the right-side, Herzog went with a lineup card that included Lindeman in the middle of the order, another rookie at DH (Tom Pagnozzi and his .583 OPS) and Lawless, who had a .080 batting average in the regular season, at third.
They would meet the man known in Minnesota as “Sweet Music”.
On the night of October 17, 1987, 27-year-old Frank Viola was at work and not at his brother’s wedding in New York where he was supposed to be the best man, like he had committed to a year prior.
In 1986 the Twins were well out of postseason contention and the left-handed starter figured that if 1987 were anything like the previous year, he would have his October wide open to participate in his brother’s nuptials. After all, how could a team that won just 71 games make up that much ground? “I thought it would be a little far-fetched. I told ‘em, yeah, I shouldn’t have any problem making it. That was last year, when we were 20 games under .500. It’s unbelieveable,” Viola told the Star Tribune.
Viola was just as much at fault for the Twins making this postseason run as anyone as he had finished the year 17-10 with a solid 2.90 ERA (a career-best 159 ERA+). When people asked how he was able to shave an entire run off his ERA over the previous year, he attributed it to his changeup.
Viola’s development of the changeup was the difference maker from the good pitcher that arrived with the Twins in the early 1980s into the great one towards the end of that decade. In 1983, Viola was a lefty who used a solid fastball and a slider-curveball combination to retire hitters (or not retire them when you consider his 128 earned runs that season was the most in baseball). That same year Twins pitching coach Johnny Podres taught Viola how to throw a changeup, keeping his arm action consistent with his fastball delivery. When Podres left and Dick Such took over pitching coach duties, Viola’s changeup became a significant weapon. “I had been working on it for 3 ½ years under Podres but was using 15 or 20 grips. None of them worked. When Such joined us, he made a few adjustments and all of a sudden I found myself comfortable throwing a changeup,” Viola said in spring training before the 1986 season.
By 1986, he had mastered the command of the pitch and scrapped him slider in favor of the off-speed.
"The changeup I use now is the one I felt most comfortable with, but it took me two years to throw it over the plate," Viola told the LA Times in August 1987. Because the Twins were pushed out of the pennant race early in 1986, Viola said he was able to experiment with the pitch until he got it right. It was working swimmingly -- after striking out 5.3 hitters per nine innings over his first four seasons, he was now whiffing 7 per nine, a massive jump. Most notably, the changeup also gave Viola an advantage over right-handed hitters he did not have before. From 1982 through 1985, righties had posted a 13% K% but that jumped to 19% in 1986 through 1987.
Viola’s showcased his changeup early in the first inning.
After Vince Coleman executed a decent but unsuccessful bunt on Viola’s first-pitch curve, shortstop Ozzie Smith took his stance in the right-handed batters’ box. With the exception of Bill Buckner, no hitter was more difficult to strikeout than the Wizard of Oz. From 1982 through 1987, Smith had struck out in just 4.9% of his total plate appearances. If there was one thing Ozzie was going to do, it was put the ball in play.
In his first appearance against Viola, the left-hander shot a low-90s fastball on the inner-half of the plate at Smith's knees for strike one and then miss wide on a big curve that skipped in the dirt to even the count. Viola then turn to that off-speed weapon that the National League was not accustomed to. The first split the plate and half while falling rapidly, leaving Smith waving over the top of it. Based on that favorable outcome, Viola followed with a near clone that Smith once again swing over for strike three.
Up to that point, Smith had 55 World Series plate appearances under his belt without a strikeout. If their first match-up was any indication, Frank Viola was showing the Cardinals hitters and viewers across America that something special what afoot.