A two-run homer by A.J. Pierzynski in the top of the ninth inning and an RBI double from David Ortiz gave Minnesota a 5-1 advantage going into the bottom half of the inning, insurance runs that turned out to be vital in the fifth and deciding game of the AL Division Series.
Oakland then produced three runs of its own, all of them coming on a homer by Mark Ellis, and had the winning run at the plate in the form of Ray Durham. But Eddie Guardado, with the playoff lives of his team riding on each pitch, enduced Durham to pop up on a 3-2 count and second baseman Denny Hocking caught the ball in foul territory to make the Twins a winner.
"In the offseason when (the contraction) happened, we were kind of down about it, but we stayed strong and it's a strong baseball team," said Brad Radke, who lasted 6 2/3 innings to get the win Sunday. "We don't really think about that.
"I don't want to say it's destiny, but we just have to go out there and play our game. We just have to take this game and go on into Tuesday and just play our game, pitch our game and just play our defense."
Minnesota, which already had pulled off a major upset by capturing the AL Central title, will host the opening game of the ALCS Tuesday night against the equally surprising Anaheim Angels. Anaheim eliminated the New York Yankees Saturday.
The Twins will play for the right to go to the World Series after being a target for contraction during the offseason. Lawsuits filed in the Twins' behalf prevented the franchise from being eliminated and the possibility of contraction was then removed as part of a new bargaining agreement that saved all of baseball in August.
Oakland won 20 consecutive games during the regular season and was a heavy favorite going into the best-of-five series. Instead of advancing, however, the Athletics became the first team in history to lose a deciding series game three straight years. Oakland was eliminated in a deciding series game by the Yankees each of the past two seasons.
Minnesota took an early 2-0 lead Sunday, Oakland cut its deficit to one with a homer from Durham in the third and then the teams settled down to a tense struggle in which every at bat could have been significant.
Radke allowed six hits and struck out four, after which J.C. Romero and LaTroy Hawkins pitched 1 1/3 innings of shutout relief. Oakland's Mark Mulder went seven innings while allowing two runs and striking out nine.
"Brad started out good and finished up good," Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He has been our man for a long time here. And he did it again today. He picked up our baseball team again and it was vintage Brad Radke, used all his pitches, got us to the seventh inning."
"Brad is a competitor, he will fight you, and he wants to win," Pierzynski said. "I know he was nervous, he will never tell me he was nervous, but I was nervous. This was a game we had to win to keep playing and stay around."
Both starters, however, had long since exited the contest when the game suddenly turned into a slugfest in the ninth.
Oakland closer Billy Koch began the ninth and he promptly gave up a walk to leadoff man Dustan Mohr. Pierzynski followed by turning on a pitch and sending it just over the scoreboard in right field for a homer that gave Minnesota a 4-1. Pierzynski hit only six homers during the regular season.
Two outs later, Cristian Guzman singled. He stole second and Corey Koskie drew a walk. Ortiz followed with what turned out to be the game-winning hit, a double that delivered Guzman.
"I was hoping my home run wouldn't mean that much but it did," Pierzynski said. "But the biggest hit was from Ortiz. That was the one that got the last run.
"We beat a great team. This team is a bunch of survivors and we just battled all the way."
Guardado came on to protect the four-run lead, but allowed Eric Chavez to reach on an infield single. Jermaine Dye's grounder to third resulted in a force play at second and Dye then raced to third on a double by David Justice. They scored in front of Ellis, who crushed a homer deep into the left field seats.
Guardado next got Terrence Long to fly out to center, but Randy Velarde reached on a bloop single to center, bringing the winning rn to the plate. With the Oakland crowd screaming for what would have been a remarkable rally, Guardado finally got Durham.
"I am telling you, that was an emotional last inning," Gardenhire said. "I was torn whether I should go get him (Guardado). I have left him out there, he has been our guy all year long, and you get to that situation, should you go get him?
"This is about winning and I left him out there. It was the hardest decision I have had all year, but I wanted that young man out there."
Minnesota's first run came in the second inning when Matthew LeCroy reached on an infield single, went to third on Torri Hunter's double and scored on a base hit from Hocking.
Guzman doubled to lead off the third and scored Minnesota's second run on a single by LeCroy.