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Span steps up

MINNEAPOLIS -- As he rose through the Minnesota Twins farm system, Denard Span kept hearing how he could be the heir apparent to All-Star center fielder Torii Hunter.

MINNEAPOLIS -- As he rose through the Minnesota Twins farm system, Denard Span kept hearing how he could be the heir apparent to All-Star center fielder Torii Hunter.

But he noticed last year how a lot of that talk changed.

He wasn't called up in September despite a strong final month at Class AAA Rochester. He read stories about how he wasn't ready for the job. Then the Twins traded for not just one but two center fielders during the offseason.

"I just wasn't sure where I stood in this organization," said Span, 24. "The previous two years everyone was talking about how Torii was getting too big for the market and when he becomes a free agent he may not come back. If he doesn't Denard Span can replace him.

"Maybe I got complacent. I felt like I still worked hard, but it's funny how things happened."

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Finding a way

Span's path to the center field job has been blocked by Carlos Gomez, the talented-yet-raw prospect the Twins received in February as part of a package for two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana. But Span found a way to force his way into the Twins' future plans by filling in for the injured Michael Cuddyer in right field, and filling in well.

Span enters tonight's series opener in Cleveland with a .326 batting average, .421 on-base percentage and a string of nice catches in right field. He's gone into the right-field corner in both Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium to catch foul balls with fans in his face. He's stepped into the leadoff spot while the struggling Gomez has been dropped to ninth, and Twins assistant GM Rob Antony admitted that Span has played so well that he deserves to stick around when Cuddyer recovers from a sprained left middle finger.

"He forced his way up here," Antony said.

Span, Antony and general manager Bill Smith had a few conversations during the offseason as the trades were made and Span wondered about where he fit in.

"You're a big part of this organization," Smith assured him.

But after Span batted .267 with three homers and 55 RBIs at Rochester last season, the Twins couldn't commit to him and wanted options. So in came Gomez and Jason Pridie, who was traded along with Delmon Young and Brendan Harris for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and minor league Eduardo Morlan.

He's ready

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"I had a couple conversations with him over the winter and tried to explain to him that he's going to be a good player," Antony said. "Did we think he was ready to handle it? Not yet."

Span's message to Antony, Smith and reporters the day he reported to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla: He was ready.

"I was fired up before they traded for them," Span said. "I was reading how the media in Minnesota was saying, 'Span is not the guy.' I was already getting riled up and pumped up before those trades were made. It definitely put more fire up my you-know-what."

But Gomez, immediately nicknamed "Go-Go," by manager Ron Gardenhire won the job. Span, who actually outhit Gomez .282 to 267 in spring, camp choked up as he spoke with reporters the day he was cut from camp.

That didn't mean he was done.

"He came to spring training with a great attitude, a chip on his shoulder, if you want to call it that," Gardenhire said. "When we sent him out he wasn't happy, but he didn't pout. He said, 'I'll show you,' and played even better."

Stick around

Span was called up April 6 for 12 games when Cuddyer suffered the first of two finger injuries. He went back to Rochester and was batting .340 with a .434 on-base percentage when the Twins called up him June 30, following Cuddyer's latest injury. Since his last call-up, Span is batting .361 with a .466 OBP.

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"When I got up here the team was winning," Span said. "I told myself that I wanted to stay out of the way, minimize mistakes, play good defense and do the little things offensively to help us win."

Cuddyer is expected to return to right field once he's healthy, but the Twins are expected to keep Span on the roster as someone who could play nearly every day while filling in at all three outfield spots. Cuddyer, whose current finger injury has been slow to heal, could still be a couple of weeks away.

His absence has allowed Span prove to the Twins that he was ready for the majors this year.

"That's what good players do," Gardenhire said. "They prove you wrong."

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