Unsung Heroes in ‘91: Kevin Tapani and Shane Mack

(picture courtesy of startribune.com)

When a Twins fan thinks of the World Series team from 1991, many names come immediately to mind. Kirby Puckett. Kent Hrbek. Jack Morris. Gene Larkin. Chuck Knoblauch. Dan Gladden. For many reasons, those should be the names that come immediately to mind for the ’91 Twins. While those are the common names associated with the championship and the postseason run, two players were major reasons the Twins made the postseason: Kevin Tapani and Shane Mack. Twins’ general manager, Andy MacPhail, made many savvy moves in his tenure, especially leading into the 1991 season, but these two less-ballyhooed pickups made a major difference in what became the World Champion Minnesota Twins.

“TAPPING” INTO HIS POTENTIAL

(picture courtesy of mlb.com)

When the Twins acquired Kevin Tapani, he was seemingly sort of an unknown quantity. Tapani came over in a trade deadline deal in 1989 as part of a package that netted the Mets the 1988 American League Cy Young winner Frank Viola. At age 25, Kevin Tapani had made a grand total of three major league appearances for the Mets, while the main piece in the Viola trade, Rick Aguilera, was an established major league commodity already. Tapani would make five starts for the 1989 Twins, including winning his first two major league games. Going into 1990, Baseball America rated Kevin Tapani as the #88 prospect in baseball. Tapani’s 1990 season would be a success, as he was 12–8 with a 4.07 ERA, despite the fact that the Twins won a mere 74 games and took last place. The next season, however, would prove to be Tapani’s best.

Tapani’s first start of 1991 would prove to be an omen of things to come for the Twins and Tapani. He pitched a complete-game shutout, scattering 7 hits and 9 strikeouts to beat Jim Abbott and the California Angels. Tapani would pitch well through April and May, putting up a 3.93 ERA, but he only managed a record of 2–6 through May. Like the Twins’ entire team, he began to take off in June, and he never looked back. From June 1 through the end of the season, Tapani would go 14–3 with a 2.62 ERA, and the Twins would win 17 of the 24 games he started. Tapani would go onto lead the Twins in WAR at 6.8. His WAR total for 1991 was the fifth-best in the AL among starters, trailing only Roger Clemens, Jim Abbott, Mark Langston and Tom Candiotti. Tapani would also finish 7th in the AL Cy Young voting.

Tapani would struggle in ALCS, giving up 9 earned runs in 10.1 innings pitched against the Blue Jays. He would redeem himself in game 2 of the World Series, as he outdueled Tom Glavine for 8 innings and picked up a win to give the Twins a 2–0 series lead. Tapani would also be part of one of the most infamous plays in World Series, as he made a heads-up throw to first base to retire Ron Gant on what is now known affectionately as the “T-Rex Tag,” as Twins’ first baseman Kent Hrbek appeared to pull Gant’s leg off of first base.

RETURN OF THE MACK

(picture courtesy of 1985topps.blogspot.com)

Shane Mack came into the major leagues with a big-league pedigree. At UCLA, he was a two-time All American and was the runner-up for the Pac-10 MVP after hitting .419 his senior year. He followed that up by being selected to represent the USA at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, joining players such as Will Clark, Barry Larkin, and Mark McGwire. Mack batted .313 and hit two homeruns to help Team USA win a silver medal. He would be also be drafted in the first round of the 1984 draft by the Padres and would join their Double-A affiliate, Beaumont, in 1985. Mack’s path to major-league success, however, would be less conventional.

Mack would move up to Triple-A Las Vegas by 1986 and he would record an OPS over .930 in parts of two seasons in Triple-A. He made his debut in 1987 with the Padres and he would play in 105 games with the big club. In 1988, Mack would play in 56 games with Padres before being sent back to Las Vegas, where he would play 55 games. After only playing 24 games for Las Vegas in 1989, Mack was left off of the Padres’ 40-man roster. The Twins took Mack in the Rule 5 draft later that year, meaning Mack would be back in the big leagues, but this time with the Twins. A gamble by the Twins would prove to pay off in droves.

In the 1990 season, Mack would prove to be a force in the Twins’ lineup, hitting .326 with an OPS of .852, both of which led Twins’ regular starters. Mack’s 1991 season would be even more successful, as he followed with a .310 average, an OPS of .893, and a career-high 18 homeruns. Mack registered a WAR of 5.0, which led Twins batters, and was 5th-best among American League outfielders (Ken Griffey, Jr., Devon White, Dave Henderson, Jose Canseco). Similar to Tapani, Mack’s 1991 takeoff coincided with the Twins’ takeoff in June. From the beginning of June until the end of the season, Mack hit .323, registered an OPS of .922, and hit 15 homeruns.

In an opposite fashion from Tapani, Mack would have success in the ALCS, but would struggle in the World Series against the Braves. After going 6 for 18 against the Blue Jays, Mack wouldn’t get a hit until the 6th game of the World Series, when he hit a RBI single off of Braves starter Steve Avery. Following the World Series in 1991, Mack would continue to dominate pitching for the Twins all the way through the strike of 1994. From 1990–1994, Mack posted a batting average of .309 and had an OPS+ of 130 (league average is 100), including having an OPS+ over 130 in 4 of those 5 seasons. Only two Twins outfielders have had more seasons with an OPS+ over 130 than Mack: Tony Oliva (8) and Kirby Puckett (5).

PUTTING THE PIECES IN PLACE

(picture courtesy of foxsports.com)

As chronicled by Dick Polman in October of 1991, a series of savvy moves by Andy MacPhail and a collection of stellar on-field performances led to a “first to worst” World Series championship. Some memorable performances included:

  • A 15-game winning streak from June 1st to June 16th
  • All Star game appearances from: Rick Aguilera, Scott Erickson, Jack Morris, and Kirby Puckett
  • Scott Erickson won 20 games and took 2nd in the AL Cy Young voting (Clemens)
  • Chuck Knoblauch won the AL Rookie of the Year
  • The Twins had 3 of the top 7 in the AL Cy Young voting (Erickson, Morris, Tapani)
  • Mike Pagliarulo hit a go-ahead homerun off of Blue Jays’ reliever Mike Timlin in the 10th inning of game 3 of the ALCS
  • Kirby Puckett batted .429 and hit 2 homeruns against the Blue Jays on his way to the ALCS MVP
  • Greg Gagne hit a 3-run homer off of Charlie Leibrandt in game 1 of the World Series to cement the lead for the Twins; Gagne hit only 8 regular-season homeruns
  • After only 5 regular-season homeruns, Scott Leius took Tom Glavine deep in the 8th inning of game 2 of the World Series to give the Twins the lead
  • Kirby Puckett made a legendary catch in left-center field on a ball hit by Ron Gant and followed that up by hitting a 11th-inning walkoff homerun off of Leibrandt in game 6
  • Jack Morris pitched 10 shutout innings in game 7 of the World Series, outdueling John Smoltz
  • Utility man Gene Larkin hit a deep fly ball to drive in Dan Gladden to win game 7 in the 10th inning, after Gladden legged out a bloop double and was moved to third on a bunt by Knoblauch

As you can see above, a World Champion must be built using a conglomeration of players that come together in a certain harmony. Sometimes it’s not the superstar or highest-paid player that makes the crucial impact necessary to put the team over the top. In the cases of Tapani and Mack, their performances have largely gone unnoticed, but without them, the Twins are probably hanging one less World Series banner.

(statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com)

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