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Bob Ryan

Twins lose big names, not big games

The ad in right field at the MetroDome seems right on target: The Twins expect more and pay less for their players. (AP) The ad in right field at the MetroDome seems right on target: The Twins expect more and pay less for their players.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / July 9, 2008

Something tells me this story's been written before.

The Minnesota Twins lose Player X because they can't pay him a free agent-type salary, but they somehow regroup and get themselves back into the American League Central race anyway. About the only difference this time was that they lost not just Player X, but Players Y and Z, too.

"We lost 400 innings in [Johan] Santana and [Carlos] Silva," says manager Ron Gardenhire. "We lost our center fielder and clubhouse leader [Torii Hunter]. In spring training, you do start wondering how you're going to figure things out."

Somebody did some pretty good figuring. The Twins came into last night's game tied in the loss column with the Red Sox, and if it's a cheap shot to point out that their payroll is just about half that of the Fenway boys, so be it. The truth is the truth.

But this is something everyone in baseball kind of takes for granted. The Twins are operated by a penurious multibillionaire named Carl Pohlad who won't spend a penny more on his club than he has to. It is a given the Twins will develop players, make shrewd trades, lose players, develop more players, make more shrewd trades, and, more often than not, they'll have a team good enough to play in October. Of course, it's a team that always seems to be lacking that extra player or two who makes the difference once you get to the postseason, but that doesn't seem to be among Mr. Pohlad's most pressing 1,000 concerns.

This particular edition is a team to make any Twins fan proud. Last year was a subpar season. After averaging 90 wins and making the playoffs four times from 2001 through 2006, the Twins slipped to 79-83, 17 games behind the Indians. In the offseason, they lost free agents Santana, Silva, and Hunter. Baseball Prospectus, while paying full homage to the ability of the Twins to shrug off these kinds of events, felt this time the losses were too severe. "With powerhouses Detroit and Cleveland in their division," said BP, "the most likely scenario is that they'll end up close to the .500 mark."

That could happen, but at the moment, they are 50-40 and are on the move, having won 19 of their last 25. Anyway, they're currently better off than the aforementioned "powerhouses."

"We knew we had a good core group," explains Gardenhire, now in his seventh season with the club. "But I think it really gets back to the starting pitching. And we've got a lot of young pitchers."

They are pitchers Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson are determined to protect.

"It's a young staff and it's a long season," Gardenhire says. "They've never pitched in big September games or gone 200 innings. We're careful with them. They're on a pretty strict pitch count - 90-100."

The Twins brought in 33-year-old innings-eater Livan Hernandez to anchor the staff, and he has pretty much come as advertised, compiling a 9-5 record with a 5.18 ERA. No other Minnesota starter is over 26. Gardenhire acknowledges he's as curious as anyone to see how young'uns such as Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and last night's starter, Nick Blackburn, will react to an honest-to-God pennant race.

One thing he doesn't have to worry about is what happens when the Twins reach the ninth inning and are ahead in the game. He simply hands the ball to All-Star closer Joe Nathan, sits back, and relaxes. Nathan has 25 saves and a WHIP of 0.90. There's usually not much to worry about.

Nathan is an atypical star Twin in that he has had a chance to bail for more exotic locales and has chosen not to. Once upon a time, ace righthander Brad Radke re-upped with the Twins when he could have signed for Very Big Bucks elsewhere. But he decided he liked the organization and the area and he startled the baseball community by signing a contract that took him to the end of his career as a Twin.

Nathan's big moment came at the end of last season. He knew what the team had lost, but he chose to remain, regardless. The club is hoping star catcher Joe Mauer and 2006 Most Valuable Player Justin Morneau are taking notes.

"It's because I thought we had a special group of guys," explains the 33-year-old closer. "I saw the potential. I like this organization. They don't abuse you. Gardy and Anderson are great to play for. They know how to take care of their pitchers. They don't just get you up to get you up."

Nathan was the key. Gardenhire doesn't want to spend any time thinking about a managerial life without Joe Nathan as his closer.

"You're only as good as the guy who ends the game," Gardenhire notes. "This is a guy who will always take the ball. That was a huge signing for us. It said a lot to the players on our ball club. It said we were in it to win this thing."

The fiery Gardenhire (39 career ejections) is on the verge of becoming Minnesota's second straight managerial icon. He took over from Tom Kelly in 2002 and has gotten himself to the point where it's difficult to think of the Twins without thinking of Ron Gardenhire.

He walked into a real mess, what with commissioner Bud Selig signing on to the idea of - gulp - "contracting" the franchise, and in the ensuing years, he has come to embody the fearlessness and resourcefulness of the organization. He is accessible but firm, and there is never any doubt about just who is the boss, such as when he sent underachieving second baseman Alexi Casilla to the minors to think things over earlier in the season.

"I didn't like what he was doing," says Gardenhire. "But it taught him something. He's come back intense and hungry. He's come back with the whole package."

Intense and hungry. Sounds like a typical Minnesota Twin to me.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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