Twins help alter perceptions in AL

It’s just like you knew it would play out. The baseball season is a marathon. The cream rises to the top. All those cliches.

The Minnesota Twins sprinted into Yankee Stadium. Sure, they took two of three from the World Series champs last week while some of the Metrodome crowd (there’s a phrase that certainly hasn’t been a cliché for a long time) pelted Chuck Knoblauch. The Twins even won the opener of the three-game rematch in New York as Eric Milton’s left arm showed “You traded me for who?” disdain for the Yankees.

But Roger Clemens had an emphatic answer the next night, and when the Yankees rallied with four runs in the seventh inning Thursday to erase a 4-0 Twins lead, well, you know how these things play out.

This is when upstart kids crumble, when pretenders find themselves as exposed as an out-of-towner who decides to walk back to his Manhattan hotel after a night game in the Bronx.

These Twins, whose undisputed hold on first place in the American League Central had evaporated the previous night, managed to take this game all the way to the 10th inning before the crucial mistake. Champions bend but don’t break. There are certain teams against whom you just don’t dare make a blunder.

It was a passed ball, a particularly galling way to go. Especially if you’re the Yankees. Especially if deep down you know you can … should … will win these games. And most especially with automatic Mariano Rivera on the mound.

But Rivera’s pitch went off Joe Oliver’s glove and A.J. Pierzynski scored. Just when the world is figuring out how to say Mientkiewicz, as in Minnesota’s .412-hitting first baseman, the Twins turn this guy into a hero. Pierzynski — he’s the catcher, for those of you who’ve been off ice fishing somewhere — doubled against Rivera for his third hit of the game. Cristian Guzman, the catalytic shortstop who was traded with Milton for Knoblauch in 1998, singled before the decisive pitch. That’s what supposed to happen TO the Twins.

Tom Kelly acted as if he still wasn’t sure the Twins really won the game, taking a stance that sounded a lot like, “We scored against who? Really?”

Kelly quickly reminds everyone not to get carried away but there’s a good argument that this series is more than, as Mientkiewicz described, “a character builder.”

And there’s plenty of recent precedent in the AL Central to support that. This time a year ago, we were as unsure of the Chicago White Sox as contender material as we’ve been about these Twins. Those Sox were clinging to a slim division lead through May but, as they were constantly reminded, they had a seven-game trip to Cleveland and New York scheduled in June. That would sort out the Central. Did it ever. Chicago swept the seven, outscored the so-called heavyweights 65-31 and stretched its division lead from two to 7½ games. Game, set, division. The White Sox never had less than a 6½-game lead until after they clinched.

Kelly has seen his team’s June schedule for this year. It includes this year’s first seven head-to-heads with Cleveland. The lurking, surging, pounding Indians, whose response to these upstart Twins’ month of their lives was a 10-game winning streak that was stopped by Kansas City on Thursday. You go 23-9 and set the league on its ear and what do you have to show for it? A one-game lead.

However, they also have the pitching, defense and fortitude to take four of six from the Yankees. Character builder? Mr. Mientkiewicz, can you say contender builder? Sure, dominating the White Sox on consecutive weekends in April put the Twins on the map. It even put fans in the stands. But the general reaction was, “Hmmm.”

Now, it’s closer to, “Wow,” and “when do they play the Indians?” June 4 in the Metrodome. Plenty of good seats available — but maybe not as many as Minnesota fans have grown accustomed to. And for the Twins’ visit to Cleveland June 19-21, tickets also are available. Hey, maybe Minnesota can help the Indians get a few sellouts that week.

Yup, we sure do have to change our thinking about a few things this season.

Below the radar: Nearly as important as the Twins’ series in New York is Seattle’s current trip. The Mariners have the biggest division lead in the majors but what remaining skeptics still are out there — or maybe it’s just wishful thinking from Oakland as the A’s finally crank up the offense — wanted another look at Seattle on the road. The Mariners, with strong pitching and defense and pretty much a National League approach to the game, are perfectly tailored for spacious Safeco Field. This trip would take them to Boston and Toronto, where a bit more thumping is required. Winning two of three at Fenway is a good start, especially when one was the result of a 10-run output and the other a tidy four-hitter by John Halama and the stingy Mariners bullpen. It’s as if Seattle, between yawns, merely asks the opposition, “How do you want to play tonight?”

It’s easy to argue that none of the current division leaders was expected to be there and that the majority won’t be four months from now. A quick handicap of their staying power:

Mariners: The bullpen has been wonderful but John Olerud has been the most important player. He’s providing enough power to force teams to pitch to Edgar Martinez at least some of the time. The fast start has allowed Seattle to delay the inevitable, going in search of another quality hitter. Oakland is heating up. This race will get closer.

Twins: Often, surprise leaders are there but by the grace of the supposed favorite’s struggles. Cleveland’s pedal to the metal is a challenge to the Twins’ mettle. So far, so good. The starting pitching and defense give Minnesota a chance in every game, even if this offense is at least partially a mirage. The key could be the return of Jaret Wright and Charles Nagy in Cleveland. Both are nearly ready and are showing excellent stuff at Triple-A. Wright is consistently throwing in the mid-90’s and beyond.

Cubs: Why not? It certainly won’t take 100 victories — or anything near — in this division. Nice week for the Cardinals but they need to do it against someone other than the Pirates. Like the Cubs this weekend in St. Louis? How’s that for a timely character builder? Don’t discount a second-half surge from the Astros.

Phillies: They can thank the Braves for helping boost their confidence. Philadelphia did just fine against Atlanta and the Braves probably are too busy assessing themselves right now to bother figuring out if the Phillies are for real. You know what’s scary? Philadelphia’s strength is supposed to be its young hitters. They really haven’t kicked in yet. When it happens, it could be enough to counteract when some of those little cracks in the bullpen become major leaks.

Red Sox: They haven’t seen Nomar and they can’t find a closer. They’re trying to unload several high-salary, low-contribution players. Nobody is really sure about any number of relationships from the front office down to the bench. If any one of those situations gets solved, it’s quite a boost. Any two of them and maybe they really are the best team in the division. Nomar is no certainty but a return — even at half speed — could be a huge psychological boost.

Dodgers: Jim Tracy has manager of the year written all over him if this keeps up. That’s about all you can read from his face as he quietly sits there and wins. What distractions? Who needs a general manager? Or even a leadoff hitter? In what should be the most tightly contested division, with everyone beating each other down thanks to the unbalanced schedule, pitching could win it. Kevin Brown and Chan Ho Park are enough of a match for Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling or Mike Hampton-Pedro Astacio that the positive signs from the rest of the L.A. rotation could be a division-breaker.

Chatter: The Devil Rays pitching staff leads the AL with 28 hit batters. (It seems they’re up there in hit bats, too.) Tampa Bay has a shot at becoming the first team to lead the AL in hit batters four consecutive seasons. … John Valentin started at shortstop for Boston. Remember, that was his original position, one he was reluctant to give up when that Garciaparra kid came along. Boston probably can’t unload Valentin’s contract and he’s not likely to unseat Shea Hillenbrand at third base, so playing a sound shortstop could be a boon for player and team. … Carlos Delgado hit his 203rd homer, tying him with Joe Carter for the Toronto franchise lead. … Cleveland’s eight hits against Kansas City on Thursday was the first time the Indians weren’t in double digits in 12 games. … You might have noticed Montreal moved Hideki Irabu to the 60-day disabled list this week. That’s just a procedural move because players on the 60-day list don’t count against the 40-man roster. The Expos were finding a way to open a roster spot. Irabu remains on target to return at the end of the month. He’ll pitch a rehab assignment at Triple-A Ottawa on Saturday.