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Athletics Stand in Way of Twins' Vision Quest


OAKLAND — The Sons of Contraction are now the Darlings of October, the warm-and-fuzzy baseball team from America's hinterland that escaped Commissioner Bud Selig's guillotine and is looking to write a storybook ending to a season that almost never was.

The Minnesota Twins, it seems, should be happy to be here, happy to be opening the best-of-five American League division series against the heavily favored Oakland Athletics today in Network Associates Coliseum, happy to scrounge for whatever scraps of recognition and national attention they can find in a series that will be broadcast by the ABC Family Network opposite the daytime soaps.

After four straight 90-loss seasons from 1997-2000, the Twins have returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1991, that magical worst-to-first season in which they won their second World Series in five years, but they take exception to those who say they should be satisfied by their AL Central title.

"You hear people say we have nothing to prove--we have everything to prove," said Torii Hunter, Minnesota's Gold Glove center fielder. "We want to win. We want to take it all the way. A lot of people say we have no chance; we have a big chance. I know we've never been here, we don't have any postseason experience, but we're ready to play."

Does that quote have a familiar ring to it? It could have come from any of the A's two years ago. Way back in 2000, it was the A's who were brash, young and cocky, an inexperienced team that won the AL West and took that no-fear attitude into the postseason, losing to the New York Yankees in a five-game division series.

Oakland went 102-60 last season and again lost to the Yankees in a five-game division series--after winning the first two games in New York--and now the A's are the playoff veterans looking to squelch the upstart.

"They're very excited to be here, but they're not scared, they're not intimidated one bit," A's third baseman Eric Chavez said of the Twins.

"They're ready to prove to the world they belong. I see a lot of ourselves in them. They have a lot of confidence."

Whether that confidence translates into runs against one of baseball's best rotations will determine whether the Twins upset the A's. Oakland will go with a three-man rotation of right-hander Tim Hudson (15-9, 2.98 earned-run average), left-hander Mark Mulder (19-7, 3.47) and left-hander Barry Zito (23-5, 2.75), a trio that gives the A's a decided advantage.

"They're three of the best pitchers in baseball," said Brad Radke, the Twins' Game 1 starter. "It's almost like Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling--automatic wins."

The Twins have a solid rotation, a deep bullpen, they're more athletic and have more speed.

They have enough pop to drill the occasional three-run home run, but they're at their best in low-scoring, close games, preferably in their artificial turf-covered Metrodome, where they are 54-27, compared to 40-40 on the road.

In fact, some believe if the Twins can split two games in Oakland, they could finish off the A's in Minneapolis.

"They're scrappy," Oakland closer Billy Koch said. "They have some power, and they can bunt for hits.

"They move guys over, hit and run ... quite frankly, they're annoying."


*--* TWINS' PROJECTED LINEUP P Player Avg HR RBIs LF Jacque Jones 300 27 85 SS Cristian Guzman 273 9 59 3B Corey Koskie 267 15 69 DH David Ortiz 272 20 75 CF Torii Hunter 289 29 94 1B Doug Mientkiewicz 261 10 64 RF Dustan Mohr 269 12 45 C A.J. Pierzynski 300 6 49 2B Luis Rivas 256 4 35



STRENGTHS: The Twins led the league with a .987 fielding percentage, and their superior team speed plays well on the artificial turf in the Metrodome, where Minnesota is 54-27 this season. In his first year as a closer, left-hander Eddie Guardado is 1-3 with a 2.93 earned-run and 45 saves in 51 opportunities, striking out 70 and walking 18. He has two reliable set-up men in left-hander J.C. Romero, who is 9-2 with a 1.89 ERA in 81 games and has limited opponents to a .213 batting average, and right-hander LaTroy Hawkins, who rebounded from last season's 1-5, 5.96-ERA disaster to go 6-0 with a 2.13 ERA in 65 games.

WEAKNESSES: The Twins have lacked discipline on the basepath, often getting thrown out at third base, and they have the league's worst stolen-base success rate, 56%. There are six left-handed batters in the Twin lineup, and Minnesota hit .252 against left-handers and was 23-29 against left-handed starters, which could be a problem against an Oakland team that features two dominant left-handers in Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. The Twins don't have an abundance of power, and they have only two players with postseason appearances on their playoff roster, pitchers Rick Reed and Mike Jackson.

KEY RESERVES: OF Bobby Kielty (.291, 12 HR, 46 RBIs), INF Denny Hocking (.250, 2 HR, 25 RBIs).

TEAM BATTING: .272 (Fifth in AL).

TEAM PITCHING: 4.12 ERA (Sixth in AL)


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