MINNEAPOLIS -- Instead of turning rapt attention to the upcoming football season, the usual custom when the days turn cooler here, fans are crowding into the Metrodome to watch the Minnesota Twins chase the American League West title.
Pennant contention is a novelty for the Twins, who haven't won their division since 1970 and have appeared in the World Series only once (in 1965) during the 27 years since they quit being the old Washington Senators. But, with 5 1/2 weeks left in the season, the Twins are looking back at rivals that were expected to field superior teams. Even after a six-game losing streak that ended Tuesday, Oakland is a game behind, California is 3 1/2 back and Kansas City is 4 1/2 behind.
Now, Twins players and executives aren't shy about calling their team the one to beat.
"I think we've earned the distinction of being the favorite," said designated hitter Roy Smalley, a 12-year veteran who has never played for a division winner. "The favorite doesn't always win, but it's out there for us to take."
"We have to feel very good about our chances," said General Manager Andy MacPhail. "I don't think our talent is overwhelming, but I think we have an edge because we play better at home and the schedule swings toward home for us."
The Twins recently completed 11 games at the Metrodome against Oakland, California and Seattle with a 9-2 record. The Athletics came to Minneapolis leading the West by four percentage points, and left trailing by four games. The Angels won two of three, the Mariners lost all four.
Then came the six-game losing streak -- three at Detroit, three at Boston.
Apparently, the Metrodome has a lot to do with the Twins' success. The Twins have a 43-19 record there, best home record in the majors, and, so far, just enough to offset a 24-42 road mark.
So what if the right field wall is a 23-foot tarpaulin? So what if the left field wall is topped with glass panels to provide the appearance of a hockey rink?
"When I was with Oakland," said reliever Keith Atherton, "with the dimensions of this ballpark, we were thinking about it before we even got here."
Winning has brought out fans. The Twins recently drew more than 30,000 for 12 straight home games and team officials expect to attract about 1.9 million this season, which would be a club record.
"When you have so many people out there every night, there's nothing like it," said pitcher Frank Viola. "All we had to do was prove that we could be a winner. The Vikings had to do it; the Twins are doing it."
"People don't understand how much community support means to this team," Smalley said. "If they only knew how much difference it makes to play in front of 30,000 or 35,000 people, making noise, pulling for you."
Consider the case of Atherton, an undistinguished reliever whose fastballs are usually clocked at 86-88 mph. He pitched the ninth inning of a recent victory, and threw three straight pitches at 91.
"I was pumped out there," he said. "You've got 40,000 people out there cheering and really getting into the game, you've got to rise to the occasion."
The Twins have no shortage of solid performers, led by Viola, a left-hander who has won 12 of 15 decisions since starting the season 2-5. In his last 18 starts, he has allowed more than three runs only once, and lasted at least six innings every time. His 2.90 ERA is tied for the lead in the AL with Charlie Leibrandt of the Royals.
Reliever Jeff Reardon has 24 saves, matching the entire bullpen's total of 1986. Kent Hrbek is third in the league in home runs, third baseman Gary Gaetti's current pace would yield 108 RBI, Kirby Puckett is batting .315 and shortstop Greg Gagne hasn't erred in his last 44 games.
"Everything is working for us right now," Puckett said. "What we've done speaks for itself. We're playing great baseball right now, just super. Keep winning, that's all we want to do."