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Wednesday, July 24
Don't count the Twins out come October

By Rob Neyer

The number for today is 13.

It's only July 24, and yet two of the six division races are over.

The Atlanta Braves just beat the Florida Marlins (again), and thus upped their lead over the second-place New York Mets to 13 games. It's certainly no surprise that the Braves sit atop the National League East standings. After all, the Braves haven't not finished a full season in first place since 1990.

The Braves finished last in 1990, and then of course they vaulted to first in 1991. They were the first National League team to go from worst to first in the space of one year, and they very nearly won the World Series.

Who kept the Braves from winning the World Series. The Minnesota Twins, who in 1991 became the first American League team to go from worst to first in the space of one year.

Those Braves and Twins both came out of nowhere. But when you're talking rags to riches, nobody can compete with the 2002 Minnesota Twins. True, the Twins did finish second in 2001, but they weren't even supposed to exist in 2002. The Minnesota Twins were supposed be nothing more than nostalgia -- "Gee, weren't those two guys shaking hands across the Mississipi River cute?" -- like the Seattle Pilots and the Washington Senators.

Something funny happened on the way to the dustbin of history, though. Instead of going gently into the good night, the Minnesota Twins are going fighting into postseason play. They've got a 13-game lead -- yes, just like the Braves -- and the odds against the Twins blowing that lead are roughly the same as the odds against Bud Selig winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Or the Honest Abe Award.

And I'm not sure what's more amazing ... that the Twins have a 13-game lead after being left for dead just last winter, or that the Twins have a 13-game lead despite getting only five victories from Joe Mays and Brad Radke, who combined for 32 victories in 2001.

Speaking of which, do you remember when the Twins' strength was supposed to be their starting pitching? Well, this year the starters have been the least of their strengths. Among the five Twins who have started at least 10 games, Rick Reed has been the best of them, and he's got a 4.60 ERA.

The relievers, on the other hand, have been outstanding. LaTroy Hawkins -- who failed as a starter, then failed as a closer -- has a 1.34 ERA as a middle man. J.C. Romero is 5-1 with a 2.04 ERA. Mike Jackson, all 37 years of him, has a 2.90 ERA after pitching poorly for Houston last year. And Everyday Eddie Guardado has become Closer Eddie Guardado, putting a lie to the notion that closers are born and not made.

But you know, the Twins aren't winning with their pitchers (or their defense). They're winning with their hitters. The Yankees lead the American League in runs scored, but the Twins are No. 2, which is six notches better than they did last year. They're not winning because of Radke and Mlton and Mays; they're winning because of Hunter and Koskie and Kielty.

So can the Twins do what they did 11 years ago? Come out of nowhere to shock the world? Realistically, their chances aren't great. As well as they've played, there are five teams in the league with better records. And while people focus more on starting pitching in the postseason than is warranted, you'd still like to have an ace or two in the rotation come October.

Then again, there is hope. The Twins won in 1991 (and 1987, too) because they were so tough at home, and once again the Twins have an outstanding record in the Metrodome. What's more, Joe Mays is back and Brad Radke is going to be back.

You want to discount their chances in October? That's just as smart now as it was last November.

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