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Down 6½, Twins begin crucial stretch today

By Jon Krawczynski, AP Baseball Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins are staring a 6½-game deficit and a crucial 12-game home stand right in the face as they prepare to come out of the All-Star break for a run at their third straight AL Central title.

They've been here before, which is perhaps the biggest reason why general manager Bill Smith didn't hesitate when asked if this next stretch of home games would determine if the team is a buyer or a seller at the trade deadline.

"We're in contention," Smith said Wednesday. "Certainly on June 1 our goal was to chip away at the deficit and get ourselves into position to be contenders and we're definitely in that mix."

If Smith isn't batting an eye at the Twins' current predicament -- in fourth place in the division behind Detroit, Cleveland and the White Sox -- it may be because they are in great shape compared to where they were after the first two months of the season.

Beset by injuries and some uncharacteristically sloppy play, the Twins started the season 17-37, a miserable performance that put them 16½ games behind the Indians. With Joe Mauer on the disabled list with a leg problem, and Jim Thome, Denard Span, Delmon Young, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and Tsuyoshi Nishioka all spending considerable time there as well, there was little reason for optimism as they appeared to drift further out of contention.

As manager Ron Gardenhire started to sum up the team's first half of the season while speaking to reporters in Chicago on Sunday, he intentionally coughed three times.

"It's not what we set out to do out of spring training," Gardenhire said after the Twins took three of four from the White Sox. "Injuries have played a part in it and some general pretty sloppy play. We really struggled defensively. We struggled throwing the ball over early in the season."

Even with many of the team's big offensive guns on the disabled list or struggling to work their way back into the lineup, the Twins won 15 of 17 games during one stretch and 24 of their final 35 before the break to surge back into the picture. Utilizing strong starting pitching from Scott Baker, Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano and getting unexpected contributions from Triple-A call-ups Ben Revere, Luke Hughes and Rene Tosoni, the Twins shaved 10 games off the deficit in just over a month.

"It's a team effort down there," Smith said. "They win as a team and they lose as a team. We got through those first two months, through some tough times and guys continue to pull together and guys continue to work hard. (Gardenhire) never let anybody hang their heads. He handled it as well as it could be done."

There's still plenty of work to be done. The Indians and Tigers are playing well, and the Twins still need to get Span (concussion), Kubel (sprained foot) and Morneau (neck surgery) healthy if they expect to have the best chance to catch them.

The Twins have a history of second-half surges, providing a little bit of comfort to a team that was 3½ games back at the All-Star break last year before running away with the division.

In 2009, they were 7 games back on Sept. 6 and 3 games back with four games to play in the regular season before winning the division in a one-game playoff. In 2006, they trailed by 10½ games on Aug. 6, but still rallied to take the division, a comeback that makes this little deficit they're facing right now look rather pedestrian.

"Some teams can go on a run and run away from everybody," Gardenhire said. "You just don't know. The good thing about the start of the second half is we're playing a lot inside our division, so you'll have your opportunities to get closer, that's for sure, if you play well inside your division. That's a good thing.

"It's happened a lot, having several teams there at the end. From where we're at, that's what we're hoping for."

AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman and freelance writer Travis Miller in Chicago contributed to this report.