Hall of Fame pitcher and knuckleballer, Phil Niekro, is no longer with us, joining a long and sad list of Hall of Fame baseball players who died in 2020. I guess you could say his death, to quote a Bloomberg news headline, “capped a hellish 2020.”
Niekro, who spent most of his career in the National League, put up some incredible numbers: 300-plus wins, 3,000-plus strikeouts and an eye-popping 5,400 innings pitched.
Late in Niekro’s career, he finally came to the American League and made stops in New York, Cleveland and Toronto. In one game as a member of the Tribe, he faced the Twins on Sept. 30, 1986. The Twins won the game, 10-9, but it was a symbolic reminder that the Twins could hit that season, but could not pitch. The Twins scored 10 runs on 20 hits, including a 4-for-4 day with a home run from second baseman, Ron Washington. Meanwhile, Cleveland banged out 16 hits and chased starter, Frank Viola, after five-plus innings. The year 1986 was a frustrating season for Twins fans.
That’s because the Twins showed improvement in 1984 (and changed owners), then fell eight games under .500 in 1985 and 20 games under .500 in ’86. Fans were growing dissatisfied, too, as attendance slipped to 13th out of 14 AL teams. Although the 1986 Twins were second in home runs, seventh in team batting average and eighth in runs scored, they were dead last in the AL in team ERA, saves, earned runs allowed and home runs allowed (Bert Blyleven served up 50 that season) and 13th in runs allowed. They had some work to do in 1987.
The Twins still gave up more runs than they scored, but they scored 45 more runs and surrendered 33 fewer runs in ’87. They also made great strides in the bullpen. They traded to get closer, Jeff Reardon, who saved 31 games that season, and signed reliever, Juan Berenguer, who was 8-1 with a 3.94 ERA. Overall team ERA fell a bit in ’87, most notably by Sweet Music, who lowered his ERA by more than a run to 2.90. The Twins also were sensational at home at 56-25 and did just enough at the right time. They had a half-game lead on the AL West to start September, then went 16-11 to extend that lead to five games by the end of the month.
What happened next? I’m sure you know.