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This is litmus test for Twins

Mientkiewicz not in lineup for crucial games

MINNEAPOLIS -- Oakland's and Seattle's appearance on the Minnesota Twins' schedule was already going to make these last two weeks of May quite compelling.

Two top teams from the American League West for 12 straight games. Plus a prime chance to re-establish their place among the league's elite after using Detroit and Tampa Bay as padding for their return to the top of the AL Central following a substandard April that included an eyebrow-raising 0-for-7 against the Yankees.

But a baserunning blunder -- and subsequent ankle sprain -- last Sunday against the White Sox put first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz on the bench for awhile and made these games against the A's and Mariners even more important.

Consider this a litmus test to see how the Twins get along without their heart and soul, since it's something they may have to do permanently after this season.

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OK, heart and soul is a bit much, not to mention quite cliched. Spleen, perhaps? Whatever the organ, Mientkiewicz is a vital one, a player who's never been far from the pulse of this team over the past few years.

Even though the stat sheets don't necessarily show it.

Todd Sears is playing first while Mientkiewicz heals, and he already looks comfortable as a major-league hitter -- with power, as evidenced by his homer off Pedro Martinez at the Metrodome last weekend.

The lanky Sears' sliding catch of a foul pop in Oakland Tuesday night had to assuage a few fears of the Twins' that he's not an adequate fielder.

Best hitter

Justin Morneau has rapidly become the organization's best hitter not wearing a Twins uniform.

Recently promoted to Triple-A Rochester, Morneau is hitting homers at a frightening pace and -- though many in the organization say he still has his share of ugly at-bats -- could be ready very soon to play in the majors.

Matthew LeCroy and Bobby Kielty have established themselves as legitimate hitters, and -- though the Twins are better suited with LeCroy as the designated hitter and Kielty playing somewhere in the outfield -- both are capable of playing first when their bat is summoned to the lineup.

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So is Michael Cuddyer, who was sent back to Rochester earlier this month so he could polish his offense on an everyday basis.

Mientkiewicz was just starting to swing the bat well last week, raising his average to a respectable .274. He isn't, however, going to flirt with .400 in the first half or finish at .306 again like he did, incredibly, in 2001.

Instead, Mientkiewicz is probably good for a dozen homers and about 70 RBIs in a season -- pedestrian numbers for his position.

Arbitration will probably fetch him more than $2 million, and any of the others -- who lag behind in service time -- could be had for just above the league minimum.

It seems Mientkiewicz could be phased out of the Twins' lineup with minimal disruption, something they may have to do to keep the 2004 payroll under control.

But he has value, to more than just the team itself, that's not immediately seen.

He's a reliable clutch hitter with a keen eye for strikes on a team that normally disregards discipline at the plate. Batting second last week with Cristian Guzman pushed up to the leadoff spot in place of an injured Jacque Jones, Mientkiewicz was in the middle of many rallies as the Twins' bats snapped to life during a 7-3 homestand.

Symbol of feisty team

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Mientkiewicz is as much a symbol of this suddenly feisty team as any of the others who came up together through the minors, struggled on the rookie-laden 1999 team and emerged as a contender in 2001 before winning the Central last year.

He's a throwback, who bats without gloves and plays with a bunch of bumps and bruises, a local heartthrob who's always quick with a witty comment after a game -- be it a 9-1 defeat or a 5-4 extra-inning comeback win.

And don't forget about the defense.

Mientkiewicz's Gold Glove is irreplaceable. Teams can certainly succeed with mediocre defense at first base, where homers and RBIs have always been the priority.

Think of all the times Mientkiewicz has sprawled out to save Guzman from an error or made a diving stab to keep Rick Reed from giving up a double down the line.

What the Twins would miss without Mientkiewicz adds up faster than most people think.

Dave Campbell is the Minnesota Associated Press sports editor. He can be reached at dcampbell(at)ap.org

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