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Updated: September 21st, 2010 11:36pm
Notebook: Twins clinch sixth division title since 2002

Notebook: Twins clinch sixth division title since 2002

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- With a 6-4 win over the Cleveland Indians and a 7-2 loss by the Chicago White Sox in Oakland, the Minnesota Twins clinched their sixth American League Central division title on Tuesday night.

The five other division titles under Ron Gardenhire came in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2009.

Perhaps the most impressive feat for the Twins is the fact that they clinched two weeks before the end of the regular season without the services of Joe Nathan all year, and without Justin Morneau since July 7.

"I'm going to be honest with you," Denard Span said. "I had no idea. I mean, I couldn't imagine that we would have been up this much. Do I think we still would have been able to compete? Yeah."

"The front office has done a hell of a job bringing some guys in, and helping us out, and just the guys that we've had for the last couple years have also played well and stepped up."

On top of missing Morneau and Nathan, the Twins have also played lengthy stretches without Orlando Hudson, Nick Punto, Jose Mijares and J.J. Hardy, and they've endured brief absences from Joe Mauer, Brian Fuentes, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn (for his lack of effectiveness) and Jason Kubel.

Yet, with moving parts and missing pieces all over the place, the Twins plowed forward with blinders on.

"I recognized that from the first couple weeks I got here last year," Carl Pavano said. "It's our coaching staff and our manager. They set a great tone for the veterans, they set a great tone for the environment in the clubhouse, and they don't panic."

The last time the Twins trailed the White Sox this season was on August 8, by a half-game. Ten days later, after winning eight of nine, the Twins sprinted out to a five-game lead.

They maintained a six-game lead heading into last week's series in Chicago and left with a nine-game cushion after a three-game sweep.

The White Sox haven't won a game since.

Heading into Wednesday, the Twins still have a very good chance to claim home-field advantage throughout the American League playoffs.

Best record
Yankees (92-59)
Twins (91-60) 1 GB
Rays (89-61) 2.5 GB

The next step for the Twins is to advance beyond the American League Division Series, where they've fallen victim in every playoff appearance since 2002. In fact, the Twins haven't won a playoff game since 2004, when they took game one at Yankee Stadium, 2-0.

Under Gardenhire, the Twins are 6-18 in postseason play.

Baker doesn't feel like he's auditioning

Scott Baker started opening day for the Twins, and he also started the clincher on Tuesday night, throwing five solid innings in his first outing since September 2.

But he might not start in the playoffs.

When asked if he feels like he's auditioning for a spot in the playoff rotation, Baker said, "Absolutely not. Unless they're making the decision on the last couple games. I don't know that they're doing that."

Baker said "It's a little too early" to discuss whether he'd feel jilted if the Twins put him in the bullpen -- or even worse, left him off the 25-man roster -- for the division series, but it's clear that health is no longer a concern.

"It's not the easiest thing, not pitching for three weeks and then going back out there," Baker said. "But at this point you don't really have a choice. But the legs felt good, the cardio felt good. The arm got a little tired in the end. But like I said, not going for three weeks, that can make it kind of tough. But the elbow held up, which to me was important."

Best team you've played for? Pavano: 'No doubt.'

The Twins front office certainly didn't hold back this season when it came to adding outside talent to an already-capable roster.

During the offseason, Bill Smith and company traded for J.J. Hardy, then signed free agents Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson -- this, of course, after acquiring Jon Rauch and Carl Pavano down the stretch in 2009.

This summer, Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes were added to bolster the bullpen.

Pavano, specifically, has been around for more than a decade, spending time in several different clubhouses, including a 2003 Marlins team that won the World Series.

But when asked if the 2010 Twins are the best team he's been apart of, Pavano said, "No doubt."

Hudson, who played for a Dodgers team that won 95 games and went to the NLCS last year, also said this Twins team is the most talented he's ever been a part of.

"This is a lot more fun," Hudson said, referring to 2010 vs. 2009. "You can't even compare LA to this. I don't want to talk about that place."

When asked what his expectations were when signing with the Twins this past offseason, Hudson said, "Exactly what we're going through right now."

"I knew that because I watched these guys play for the last few years and played against them so many times. It's a great ball club. Me and Mauer talked about that before I signed, so I knew what I was getting into."

Then there's Hardy, who was banished to Class-AAA last summer with Milwaukee. He battled a major mental funk all year, and called 2009 the worst year of his professional life.

Hardy has battled a sore wrist off and on this season, but his production has improved steadily throughout the summer.

"It went from last year being a nightmare to (this year) being a dream come true," Hardy said. "This is a lot of fun.

"I knew this team was good when I came over here, but I don't know if I knew it was this good."

Unsung hero: Jon Rauch?

Between shuffling the rotation, mixing and matching in the bullpen, and dealing with various injuries, pitching coach Rick Anderson has been a busy man this season.

He's also played a significant role in Francisco Liriano's return to near-elite status, Nick Blackburn's late-season turnaround, and Jesse Crain's emergence as a lights-out set-up man.

But Anderson credits somebody else with helping the Twins pitching staff remain afloat.

"The unsung hero, really, of the team is Rauch," Anderson said. "Where would we be without what Rauch did? I mean, you're coming out of spring not knowing what you're going to have at closer. And here he steps in and saves 20-some games."

Rauch has a 3.20 ERA with 44 strikeouts to just 14 walks in 56 1/3 innings this season. He converted 21 of 25 saves before Capps arrived at the end of July.

"He accepted it," Anderson said of Rauch's move to a set-up role. "He probably wondered why, because he was doing such a good job. But you get a guy like Capps, it was a good move. It made us stronger, setting up with Rauch."

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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