They haven't been to the playoffs since 1991, they haven't had a winning record since 1992 and their Septembers these days don't involve much more than recalling rookies and looking toward next season. But for one day today, second-year left-hander Eric Milton allowed the Minnesota Twins to crack open their very own bottle of September champagne, just like the contenders.
Facing a rookie-laden Anaheim lineup, Milton reeled off just the fifth no-hitter in Twins history -- a 7-0 victory during which the former University of Maryland standout dominated from the first pitch.
"I'm pretty numb right now," Milton said about 30 minutes after being mobbed by his teammates in front of the mound. "This is probably the greatest day of my life. I'm overwhelmed."
Milton -- who has a Terrapin tattooed just above his right ankle -- struck out rookie right fielder Jeffrey DaVanon to start the game, blazed strike three past DaVanon to end the game and, in between, fanned 11 more Angels for a career-high 13 strikeouts. He allowed just two base runners -- Orlando Palmeiro, who walked in the first inning and was stranded on first base, and DaVanon, who walked in the third but was caught attempting to steal second.
Milton, 24, then retired the final 18 Angels. His final pitch, a high fastball that DaVanon swung through, was clocked at 94 mph -- among the hardest pitches Milton threw all day.
The small crowd of 11,222 began to buzz about midgame, and Milton clearly began feeding off the energy in the late innings. He walked off the field in the seventh to a loud ovation after inducing a routine fly to center from Troy Glaus. He walked off to a standing ovation after ending the eighth by getting Bret Hemphill to bloop an easy popup to second.
"You can't help but hear that," said Milton, who was acquired from the New York Yankees as part of the trade for Chuck Knoblauch last year. "Once you hear that kind of ovation, it really gets you going."
And that was exactly what the bewildered young Angels didn't need. Already, Milton had been overpowering in the early innings. Throwing mostly fastballs, Milton kept the ball on the corners. His best fastball touched 94 mph, and the rare change-up came in at 68 mph.
On his best days this season, Milton has been a tough match for most everybody. He battled Roger Clemens nearly to a standstill on Aug. 16 before finally losing, 2-0, in Yankee Stadium. He shut out the Angels, 8-0, in Anaheim on July 31 -- and, on that day, Angels sluggers such as Mo Vaughn, Tim Salmon, Darrin Erstad and Garret Anderson were in the lineup.
Today, citing Friday night's game coupled with today's early start (11 a.m.) and its place in the AL West (last), Anaheim interim manager Joe Maddon penciled only one regular into his lineup -- Glaus. Maddon's concoction for the day also featured four players who made their major league debuts this season.
"I think sometimes that's harder," Twins catcher Terry Steinbach said about facing a lineup filled with unknown players. "I've been behind the plate a lot for Mo Vaughn, Tim Salmon and Jim Edmonds. I'm not saying they're easy outs, but you know what they're thinking.
"With this young lineup, we went over the scouting reports and there was nothing there. It took me 20 seconds and I said, `This isn't going to help.' "
It didn't take Milton and Steinbach long to find their groove, and by the sixth inning the thought of a no-hitter crossed Steinbach's mind.
"You started having that feeling," Steinbach said. "But on turf, anything can happen."
Milton said he began thinking about it in the seventh but quickly pushed it to the back of his mind.
"I didn't want to get ahead of myself," Milton said.
It was the third no-hitter of the season, following Jose Jiminez's no-hitter for St. Louis against Arizona on June 18 and David Cone's perfect game for the Yankees against Montreal on July 25.