CHICAGO - Nothing fazes the Minnesota Twins.
Threatened with contraction three years ago, they ran away with the American League Central title. In disarray at the All-Star break last year, they regrouped and won the division again. And 2004? This might just be the most improbable run of them all.
Forced by economics to replace half the team, then riddled with injuries, the Twins should have been out of contention two months ago. Instead, they're making room at the Metrodome for another AL Central trophy after clinching Monday night and getting ready for the third straight trip to the playoffs, a first in the team's 44-year history.
"No matter what you throw at us, we're going to try and bob and weave," said Torii Hunter. "We might get hit every once in a while, but we're going to try and bob and weave, try to make do and try to stay alive."
It's one thing for the New York Yankees or Atlanta Braves to win year after year. The Braves have one of the most stable organizations in the big leagues and the Yankees have more money than some small countries.
But the Twins? They put the "small" in "small-market team."
Their payroll at the start of the year was $53.585 million, less than a third of what the Yankees were spending. Their highest-paid player, Brad Radke, will earn $10.75 million this season, which doesn't even crack the top 25 in the list of biggest paychecks.
It's not as if the Twins can count on continuity, either. They lost Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins and A.J. Pierzynski among others in the offseason, and then traded Doug Mientkiewicz in July.
Losing that kind of talent would make most teams want to curl up in their clubhouses and wait for spring training.
Not the Twins.
"We really don't think about all those things," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's not like we sit around and go, 'Wow, let's show 'em.' We just go out and play."
While the Twins have managed to keep a core of key veterans who can show the newcomers the Minnesota way, general manager Terry Ryan also has shown a knack for finding the right people to fill his holes.
Joe Nathan went from one career save to third in the American League with 43 saves, blowing only three all year. Johan Santana has gone from a little-known member of the bullpen last season to a favorite for the AL Cy Young Award. He leads the league in ERA (2.65) and strikeouts (254).
Still, with all of the changes, even the Twins weren't sure what to expect. They soon found out, though. Minnesota led the division from July 25 on, and held a 13-game lead with 12 to play.
"As it turned out, we've still got the heart," Hunter said. "We still went out there and played hard, took every pitch, every inning and played it to the fullest."
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