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Twins hope to hoist trophy10/03/2004 7:00 PM ET
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- You know what they say about people who assume ...
The Twins have always been all too happy to finish that saying on the field while winning three straight American League Central Division championships.
The only difference is that entering this season, it wasn't so far-fetched to believe that Minnesota was a weaker club than its previous two editions. Because economics prompted high offseason turnover, it appeared to be the case. The question was how could they win without Eddie, LaTroy, Eric and A.J.? The predictions were that the Royals or White Sox would take the division.
Yet, here the Twins are, again about to start another American League Division Series. Game 1 against the Yankees starts Tuesday in New York.
"You can always predict stuff before the season starts and it doesn't happen or pan out," Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. "At one point, I didn't know what was going to happen."
The questions that should now be asked are where would they be without Joe, Lew, Carlos, Justin, Juan and Henry? How about Johan Santana and Brad Radke?
"We've got a better pitching staff this year," Santana said.
"We have a better team," Hunter declared.
Is it improved enough to climb heights not achieved by the 2002 or 2003 teams?
"I obviously wasn't here to see it, but if there was a team better than this one the last couple of seasons, they had to have been a pretty good team," first-year closer Joe Nathan said.
Nathan, acquired from the Giants for catcher A.J. Pierzynski, was one of several new faces arrive in spring. With one career save, the right-hander was part of a bullpen thought to be the club's biggest weakness going into the season. Forty-four saves later, no one is questioning whether Nathan has the stuff or ability to close games. Likewise in the eighth inning for holdover Juan Rincon, who took control of a new role.
Big contributions also materialized from unexpected places. Because of injuries, just two of the nine players in the Opening Day lineup didn't spend time on the disabled list. Manager Ron Gardenhire used his planned regular lineup just twice. Seven rookies make their big-league debuts in 2004.
"Throughout the course of this year, it's been hard to sit down and write a lineup until I waited for everyone to get here and I'd see who could play," said Gardenhire, who has won 90 or more games in each of his first three years. "We've had a lot of guys beat up and we've been through a lot of players."
Two almost rookies, Lew Ford and Justin Morneau, began their seasons in Triple-A Rochester. Both are now in the Majors to stay.
Ford arrived April 10 to fill in for an injured Hunter, and he became an immediate fan favorite. By batting over .300 most of the season, he became a fixture and sometimes carried a team that struggled to score runs. There was no one who produced more than 25 home runs or 90 RBIs this season.
"As its turned out, he's given us a lot of quality at-bats, a lot of offense," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "It doesn't matter if you play him in left, center or right [field], he can play all three."
When former first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz went on the DL at the All-Star break, it cleared the way for Morneau. When the 23-year-old brought sorely needed power to the middle of the order, Mientkiewicz was traded July 31. In just 74 games, Morneau slugged 19 homers.
Henry Blanco picked up Joe Mauer and caught more than 100 games when a knee injury wrecked Mauer's much-anticipated rookie season. A 41-year-old, lefty Terry Mulholland, was acquired for a $1 to help the bullpen and ended up stabilizing the rotation's fifth spot.
"They just stepped up," Hunter said. "When people come over or come up, they read us. They say, 'Look, this team is cool. They let us do whatever we want.' They're not pressured. We're just so relaxed and guys fit in. It allows you to play."
The rotation boasted three starters with more than 200 innings pitched.
Santana, in his first full year as a starter, advanced from good to great in 2004 by posting a 20-6 record, including a dominant 13-0 after the All-Star break. Pitching more than 200 innings for the first time, the 25-year-old led the AL in several key categories including ERA (2.61) and strikeouts (265). It's made him a leading candidate for the Cy Young Award.
Many believe that Radke, who had his numbers dwarfed by Santana because of poor run support and 15 no-decisions, pitched better this year than he ever has. And that included his 20-win season in 1997.
Then there was another newcomer, Carlos Silva, who finished second on the club in wins with a 14-8 record. Entering the year, the offseason acquisition and former Phillies reliever had one career big league start.
"I'll put our staff up to anybody's," said Radke, who finished 11-8 with a 3.48 ERA. "Going into the season, it was the same old [stuff] -- people thinking we would come in third or second place or whatever. Once everyone saw us play this year and how dominant our staff was and how good our offense can be at times, people feel like we can do some damage in the playoffs."
Nothing less would be acceptable for the Twins the third time around. The fad of being called the contraction kids and underdog darlings has long since expired. The expectations are higher now, inside and outside the clubhouse.
"I would be disappointed if we don't get to the World Series," Hunter said.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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