Familiar and similar foes: A's, Twins to face off in first round

Tuesday, October 3rd 2006, 6:32 am
By: News On 6

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ The luggage was loaded for New York, where Minnesota was presumably headed until the conclusion of a chaotic, emotional week left the Twins celebrating their AL Central championship on Sunday.

Suddenly, home-field advantage for the first round of the postseason was theirs, along with some extra time to rest and the chance to procrastinate a possible matchup with the mighty Yankees.

``It was a good feeling taking your bag off the truck last night and just going home instead of getting on a plane,'' said Joe Mauer, who became the first catcher in history to lead the majors in batting average.

The Twins made a brief appearance Monday morning at the Metrodome, where hallways, stairs and the clubhouse carpet were still sticky from the beer and champagne spray that followed their victory over Chicago and Detroit's extra-inning loss to Kansas City the day before.

``I think a lot of guys were still in shock with all the stuff that happened,'' Mauer said.

They're pitted against the Oakland Athletics, the AL West winners, a team they beat in the division series four years ago, and a club molded by an organization with similar payroll constraints and a productive farm system. Game 1 is Tuesday afternoon.

``They're a lot like us,'' said right fielder Michael Cuddyer, one of only four players remaining in Minnesota from the 2002 playoffs. ``They're built around starting pitching and defense. They've got great team chemistry. They play the game the right way.''

Revenue sharing has helped clubs from smaller media markets qualify for the postseason more easily, but change is common as top players often price themselves out of teams' plans. The Twins and A's are prime examples, with only Barry Zito, Eric Chavez and Mark Ellis left on Oakland's roster from four years ago.

These particular teams have been frequently lauded, too, for building consistent winners over the past half-decade or so despite a limited budget.

``Whenever you have that much of a turnover, to still put out a quality team and never have that rebuilding year, says a lot about the organization,'' Cuddyer said.

Minnesota returned to the playoffs after missing out last season, and Oakland is back following a two-year absence. The A's, of course, have an awful recent October history, having been bounced in the first round each time from 2000-03 and losing all nine games with a chance to eliminate their opponent.

``It's a new team, you know, so we're just going into this with a fresh outlook,'' said Zito, who will start the first game against Johan Santana, the major league leader in wins, strikeouts and ERA.

Zito is likely in his final season with the A's, and the eccentric left-hander with the big, looping curveball is determined to end his team's trend of postseason failures.

A big help this year has been Frank Thomas, who left the White Sox and totaled 39 homers and 114 runs as the designated hitter. The Big Hurt was hurt last year and missed out on all the fun when Chicago won the World Series, but he's eager to fully experience some success this fall.

``This is the first time in a long time I have been with a team that guys look forward to coming to the clubhouse every day and being around each other throughout the day,'' Thomas said. ``So we got a great mix.''

Minnesota's rotation after Santana is rookie Boof Bonser, Brad Radke and Carlos Silva. Oakland will counter with Esteban Loaiza, with the rest yet to be announced by manager Ken Macha _ who is choosing between Danny Haren, Rich Harden and Joe Blanton for two spots.

Harden was injured most of the season and had a shaky start on Sunday, walking six and surrendering six runs while throwing 91 pitches in only 3 2-3 innings. Harden will throw on the side Tuesday, and Macha will make a decision after that depending on how the right-hander is feeling.

Ousted a year ago when he failed to reach an agreement to renew his contract with the team, Macha was rehired about a week later and helped lead the A's to one of their familiar second-half surges.

In fact, at 48-26, they had the best record in baseball after the All-Star break _ mere percentage points better than the Twins.

Minnesota's turnaround was movie script material, going 71-33 after bottoming out at 25-33 in early June. Playing in the strongest division in the majors, the Twins overcame a standings deficit that was as big as 12 1/2 games and still 10 1/2 games on Aug. 7.

With Mauer, Santana and fellow MVP candidate Justin Morneau, they're stacked with more star power than usual _ and probably more dangerous than any of their predecessors in 2002-04. That's despite a season-ending elbow injury to rookie left-hander Francisco Liriano and Radke's ailing shoulder.

With Mauer, Cuddyer (24 homers, 109 RBIs), Morneau (34, 130) and Torii Hunter (31, 98), the Twins have their best heart-of-the-order since their first World Series title team in 1987. Zito called his opponent ``a little more of kind of a normal playoff kind of team'' than the one he faced in 2002.

If all else fails, there is always the supremely confident Santana, who is the favorite to win his second Cy Young Award in three years.

``I've done it for a while now,'' Santana said. ``I know what to do. I know what it takes to win games, so I'm good to go.''