By Jon Krawczynski
MINNEAPOLIS — It all happened so fast for the Minnesota Twins last season.
One day they were an afterthought in the AL Central, a lifeless club that was 121⁄2 games out of first place. After a few tweaks here and there, all of a sudden they became the young, fiery, energetic Twins who tore through the final three months of the season and stole the division title on the last day of the year.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it was all over.
Considered a legitimate World Series contender when the playoffs began, the Twins were swept out of the playoffs in three games by the Oakland Athletics.
"It definitely came to an abrupt stop. A stop that we weren’t expecting, nor were we wanting," said cleanup hitter Michael Cuddyer.
When spring training opened in February, many of Cuddyer’s teammates seemed equally puzzled on how such a memorable regular season could end so anticlimactically, like a fabulous Fourth of July fireworks show with a sparkler for a grand finale.
The Twins open the regular season at home against Baltimore on Monday, and most of the players who made that stunning run to the team’s fourth division title in five seasons return, looking for more.
"Definitely, just because we thought we had the team to win," first baseman Justin Morneau said. "The way it all kind of played out, we almost thought it was meant to happen. It was one of those things where everything kind of works out like that and you feel good going into the playoffs and feel like you can’t lose. And all of a sudden you lose three straight and you’re done. It just makes you hungry to come back and do it again."
Returning are the AL MVP (Morneau), Cy Young winner (Johan Santana) and batting champ (Joe Mauer), as well as all nine position players and the entirety of one of baseball’s best bullpens.
Having all those pieces in place last year, like Morneau said, gave them a sense that the World Series was their destiny. Manager Ron Gardenhire hopes that sense of entitlement, and the disappointment that came when it went unfulfilled, fuels his club in 2007.
"It feels that way, doesn’t it? It feels like we should’ve went farther," Gardenhire said. "I don’t know if it’s unfinished. I think we have to just X-out last year. We can’t worry about what happened. But still you want them to have a piece of that in their mind about how we played. You want that hunger to carry over to this year."
For the Twins to bring home their fifth division title of the century, and have the chance to make up for last season’s playoff failure, some more holes will have to be filled.
Last year, it was third baseman Nick Punto and shortstop Jason Bartlett who invigorated a team that needed a shot in the arm after veterans Juan Castro and Tony Batista didn’t pan out.
This year, the Twins are counting on some unproven pitchers to solidify the rotation behind Santana. Brad Radke retired and Francisco Liriano will miss the season after having Tommy John surgery.
So the Twins will start the season with second-year right-hander Boof Bonser and inconsistent veterans Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Carlos Silva behind the incomparable Santana. Waiting in the wings is rookie Matt Garza, who had an outstanding spring, but was sent down to Triple-A for seasoning.
The tenuous situation has raised doubts about the Twins’ ability to contend in the powerful AL Central, doubts that are already on the bulletin boards in the clubhouse.
"We’re already picked third or fourth," Gardenhire said. "I don’t have to look back too many years to see what’s going to motivate us for this year."
Gardenhire’s players have adopted that confidence.
"Sure, we have a few question marks in the rotation," backup catcher Mike Redmond said. "But we did last year too in different spots. It all worked out, and it will work out again."
That attitude permeates the Twins’ clubhouse. To a man, they say, "If we did it last year, why can’t we do it again?"
They are also clear that there’s more to be had than another division crown. And if no one else thinks they can do it, all the better. The Twins thrived off the doubters last season, and there are plenty this year, too.
"If you didn’t have that on top of it, you throw in the fact that we didn’t do as well as we should have," Morneau said. "It’s just a little extra fire to come out, and everybody’s picking us to finish third or fourth in the division again. We have a lot to prove."