Twins ready for another run
MINNEAPOLIS - Ron Gardenhire found the Minnesota Twins tougher to manage last year than in any of his three previous seasons supervising the team. Not by coincidence, the 48-year-old skipper was stressed out. In late August, Gardenhire had to lie...
MINNEAPOLIS - Ron Gardenhire found the Minnesota Twins tougher to manage last year than in any of his three previous seasons supervising the team.
Not by coincidence, the 48-year-old skipper was stressed out.
In late August, Gardenhire had to lie on the floor of his office and miss the final four innings of a game because his head felt like it was on fire and his heart was beating too fast.
His health has been doctor-approved, but the ordeal was frightening. Similarly, the Twins are aiming to use the sobering experience of a bitter, barely-above-water finish - plus a few upgrades on the roster - toward returning to postseason contention in 2006.
"I like it better than last year," said center fielder Torii Hunter, whose broken left ankle and subsequent absence from the clubhouse and the lineup contributed to Minnesota's fade from the AL Central race and 83-79 record.
It was, indeed, the first time in Gardenhire's four seasons that the Twins missed the playoffs. Intrasquad squabbles, including a fight between Hunter and first baseman Justin Morneau at the end of September, and not-so-sound defense were uncharacteristic factors. So was a lethargic offense that ranked last in the American League in runs.
The results were even harder to swallow, considering that Minnesota was a trendy sleeper selection to reach the World Series.
"I tried to warn some people about that. We had too many new faces. Not that I wasn't encouraged, because once we left spring training I felt real good leaving here," general manager Terry Ryan said.
The World Champion Chicago White Sox have added some valuable players, the maturing Cleveland Indians appear hungry and poised for more success in the division, and there's a sure-to-be-stiff competition for the AL wild-card spot. So the Twins face a tough challenge, but they figure to be able to benefit from the lack of lofty outside expectations.
Ryan, at least, would actually rather have those around.
"I'd rather be the pick," he said. "Because it means you're coming off another good year."
Though Minnesota's run of 90-win seasons ended, the roster turnover did not. Right fielder Jacque Jones was let go, and left-handed reliever J.C. Romero was traded. Ryan added two free agents for the lineup, designated hitter Rondell White and third baseman Tony Batista, and dealt a pair of pitching prospects for second baseman Luis Castillo.
Hunter, by attrition, has become the longest-tenured position player and the only regular left from the 2002 team that beat baseball's plan to fold the franchise and went to the AL championship series. It's been an inevitable consequence of a ripening roster and a limited budget.
"It's going to take a while for us to get that chemistry," Hunter said. "There's a lot of new faces here. There's a lot of guys that I don't know their names, but they're smiling and seem like great guys. That's what we want - good guys, good players, guys who work hard."
Gardenhire, a lifelong practical joker, has found himself unable to unleash his usual barrage of good-natured insults and mischievous pranks, as he waits to get to know his players a little bit better.
Fake snakes. Handshake buzzers. During spring training, Gardenhire left it all behind in Minnesota.
"I'm not sitting around thinking about it as much as I used to. I used to booby trap everything. You start worrying about that stuff coming back at you. I'm a little calmer because there are different people here," Gardenhire said.
One thing he's not planning to change, though, is his dugout demeanor. He's been ejected 20 times in four seasons, and that total doesn't figure to stay stagnant.
"I'm just going to be me," said Gardenhire, who has cut back sharply on his caffeine intake and taken steps to get better sleep, eat healthier and be more relaxed in response to last summer's heart scare.
"Definitely makes you sit back and think, when you're going through all these tests and them shooting titanium through your veins," Gardenhire said. "Don't let this game whack you."
Rotation stalwart Brad Radke felt like the game was whacking him last season, when start after quality start was wiped out by a lack of run support. He wasn't the only starting pitcher who publicly complained, one of the many divisive issues the Twins dealt with in 2005.
So, was Radke satisfied with the offensive additions?
"Yeah, but no," he said. "We did the best we could. You've just got to feel like most of the guys we had last year are going to have better years. ... We just have to mix as a team. We just have to have good chemistry on the field."
Certainly, a staff led by ace Johan Santana, Radke and Carlos Silva and anchored by All-Star closer Joe Nathan will always be competitive. The key, again, lies with the lineup.
"The pitching that we have is unbelievable. I think the defense is going to be great. All we have to do is score some runs," White said.