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Twins winning with pitching, 'D'

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April 15
Then came the defending division-champion White Sox, and they were swept away by the surprising AL Central leaders.

The season is two weeks old, and it's just about time to look at the Minnesota Twins and ask: What are they doing atop the American League Central with the best start (9-2) in their 41-year history?

Carlos Lee and the White Sox found themselves flattened by the suddenly confident Twins.

OK, the attendance is modestly improved, up more than 23,000 through six home dates, over 15,000 in the five dates after Opening Day. "If we play well, the fans will come back, and I don't care where we're playing," said Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan. "This is still a good baseball town. They can talk about the ballpark all they want, but the fact is we haven't given these fans much to cheer for in the last few years. If we do, they'll cheer."

Ryan and manager Tom Kelly are two good reasons to root for these Twins to be good enough to restore the interest of the first American League to draw three million fans, back in 1988 when they were world champions and had players like Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and Gary Gaetti.

Ryan and Kelly have never pulled the ownership blackmail game of blaming a facility for performance and interest. In fact, when spring training opened this February, Kelly told players he didn't want to hear anyone sing the small-market blues, and Ryan came out and said that while they haven't had a winning record since 1992, it's about time for them to start winning.

They know what they have, a young team with the lowest payroll in the majors – $25.2 million, nearly $9 million less than the Oakland A's, who have the second lowest.

"We have pitching, we can play very good defense, we've got some energy and I think we can do a few things," says Kelly. "We may be a little short on power, but I'd like to believe that pitching and defense are a pretty good foundation for a winning team."

In a home-run league, the Twins and Mariners are anomalies. Seattle doesn't have a particularly good position-player team and they don't have much power, but they are a bunch of professional hitters. They catch the ball very well, they pitch, they have league's best bullpen and believe they can use spacious Safeco Field as an advantage.

The Twins think they have more power than last year's club that hit only 116 homers, but they aren't a thunder team. They have pitching – especially good left-handed pitching – and with their defense and speed figure they can use one of the American League's two remaining artificial surfaces to their advantage.

"There was a time when the Metrodome was a big home-field advantage," says Ryan, who remembers that neither the Cardinals or Braves won a game in either BaggyDome World Series. If you haven't noticed, after sweeping Chicago, these Twins are now 6-0 at home.

Is it a surprise that the Twins are leading all AL teams in OPS and runs per game through the Ides of April? Of course, but they do have some interesting hitters to watch, like Corey Koskie, David Ortiz and Jacque Jones. They know Matt Lawton will hit, that Cristian Guzman is not only one of the league's most exciting players, but a great turf player. They know Torii Hunter is a Gold-Glove caliber center fielder. And because they are so left-handed, they hope that Brian Buchanan can give them some pop from the right side, and will see what switch-hitter Bobby Kielty can do while Hunter is disabled.

The Twins appreciate that the 9-2 start has been accomplished against the pitching of the Tigers, Royals and White Sox. But Joe Mays is off to a good start, and can stop answering the question of why anyone with that stuff doesn't win. And with Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Mark Redman joining him in the rotation, they have a chance.

"We needed to get Mays and all of them off well, and it's happened," says Ryan. "Because in the long run, we think we have pretty good depth. We also have six left-handers, and I think in this league that can be a big advantage."

Indeed, teams that started left-handed pitchers won 53 percent of the time last season.

As the season wears on, they hope LaTroy Hawkins can close, and they have Bob Wells in the bullpen from the right side. They have Everyday Eddie Guardado, the talented J.C. Romero, Johan Santana and Trever Miller from the left side, and have depth in the minors with potential starters like Matt Kinney.

Defensively, they are above average to excellent at almost every position, with Hunter and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz outstanding. Both catchers can handle pitchers, and they made a point of working Mays with veteran Tom Prince.

This isn't and will not be a team of stars, and injuries and the schedule could expose their lack of depth. But the Twins are precisely what they said they would be, a team that plays hard, never makes excuses and can pitch and play defense.

"I think you're going to find that pitching and defense is going a lot further than it looks on paper," says Seattle GM Pat Gillick. "We hope it works for us. And I think you're going to find that the Twins are a lot better than anyone thought."

And with a payroll less than a quarter of that of either the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers.

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 ESPN's Peter Gammons analyzes the Minnesota Twins' early-season success.
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