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Minnesota has a knack for landing on its feet

MINNEAPOLIS -- The baseball version of a teachable moment, Minnesota Twins style, happened a little more than a month into the season. As has often been the case this year, the student was Carlos Gomez, Minnesota's exciting but erratic center fie...

MINNEAPOLIS -- The baseball version of a teachable moment, Minnesota Twins style, happened a little more than a month into the season. As has often been the case this year, the student was Carlos Gomez, Minnesota's exciting but erratic center fielder.

Gomez is one of many young new faces whose play has kept the Twins in the thick of the American League Central race, even after the star center fielder Torii Hunter and the ace pitcher Johan Santana left in the offseason. Integrating the newcomers requires frequent in-game tutorials from manager Ron Gardenhire and his coaching staff, and this was one of the more memorable ones.

An overeager Gomez fielded a first-inning single against Toronto and overthrew second by so much that the ball bounced to Gardenhire in the Twins dugout for a two-base error. The runner did not score, but at the end of the inning, Gardenhire waved Gomez over. Instead of yelling at him for carelessness, Gardenhire offered the ball to Gomez and asked him to autograph it.

"He's a kid who plays with a lot of emotion," Gardenhire said. "If I kick him there, I might lose him for the rest of the game. He smiled. But he also knew what he did wrong, and it didn't affect him the rest of the game, I don't think."

Gomez, who is hitting .250, hit a homer two innings later, and the Twins went on to win 5-3. Gomez said he appreciated Gardenhire's light yet firm touch.


"I like that he can talk to me like I'm his son," Gomez said. "That's why I'm so happy. This team is great. They've got a great staff, and a good manager."

Because of that, what should have been a rebuilding year has turned into a contending one for the Twins, who began a three-game series at Yankee Stadium on Monday night. After Monday's loss to the Yankees, Minnesota is a half game behind the division-leading Chicago White Sox.

Coming of age

"You've got to give Ron Gardenhire and his staff credit," said Texas manager Ron Washington, whose Rangers beat the Twins on Sunday, 1-0. "I don't think early in the year people thought Minnesota was going to do anything this year. But their staff got after it. And their young pitching is starting to perform."

It took time. The Twins have used five starters at short and six at third. Yet since June 13, the Twins are a major league-best 23-9. The starting rotation, with the well-traveled Livan Hernandez fronting two rookies and two others with minimal experience, is 19-6 in that stretch with 24 quality starts.

Until hitting a season-high four home runs on Saturday, the Twins had the fewest of any team in the AL, with only Justin Morneau (15) and Jason Kubel (13) in double figures. But the Twins make up for a lack of power with hustle and timely hitting. Minnesota's .313 average with runners in scoring position is by far the best in the majors.

"You have to be surprised," said Gardenhire, whose team traded Santana to the Mets and did not re-sign Hunter or pitcher Carlos Silva. "When you lose Santana and you lose Silva and you lose Torii Hunter, that's a lot. You wonder how you're going to make up for that.

"Fortunately for us, our young pitchers have stepped up and done a good job. The middle of the lineup guys have done their part, and we've had a lot of good role guys step up."


Youngsters with promise

Nick Blackburn (7-5, 3.65 earned run average) and Glen Perkins (7-2, 3.84), who will face the Yankees in this series, are tied for the AL lead in victories by rookies. The left-handed Perkins, raised in nearby Lakeville, Minn., threw six scoreless innings on Friday to beat Texas for his fifth consecutive victory.

The rotation has been so strong that the Twins say they have no room for Francisco Liriano, the 2006 sensation who missed last season after having reconstructive elbow surgery. Liriano, 8-0 at Class AAA Rochester since late May, has allowed one earned run while winning his last four starts. His agent, Greg Genske, filed a union grievance last week, accusing the Twins of limiting Liriano's service time so he will not be eligible for arbitration next year.

Perkins is one of four in-season Class AAA call-ups who have fortified the Minnesota roster. Second baseman Alexi Casilla, third baseman Brian Buscher and right fielder Denard Span (who replaced the injured Michael Cuddyer) are all playing regularly and batting over .300. A fifth call-up, infielder Matt Macri, hit .367 before returning to Rochester.

"We've just been fortunate enough that some depth has helped us," Gardenhire said. "And we didn't know if that was going to be the case."

What the Twins have done, after every other team in the division appeared to strengthen itself in the offseason while they lost Hunter and Santana, is extraordinary.

"If you're in that clubhouse, and you lose a couple of players like those two, you think, Oh no, we're in for a long haul next year," said Texas reliever Eddie Guardado, a former Twins teammate of Hunter and Santana. "You think that way because they were your guys.

"Then you go, 'What are we going to do now?' But they've stepped up and moved on. That's just what they do."


It hasn't all been smooth. The Twins' surge over the past month came after a 1-7 stretch on the road in which opponents scored 10 runs or more four times. But the pitching coach Rick Anderson implored his staff to keep throwing strikes -- the Twins have issued the fewest walks in baseball -- and things turned around.

"I don't want to say we're surprised by what they did at all," the All-Star closer Joe Nathan said. "This is what Gardy and them instilled in us at the start. If we go out and play the way we're capable of, we're going to be in the spot we're in now. So we're not surprised by it.

And the lessons continue. Gardenhire said Gomez never signed the errant ball. "I threw it in the stands," Gardenhire said. "That's where it belonged."

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