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Twins sparkle without the stars



Published: Sat, June 9, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



CLEVELAND -- While the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies are the surprise teams in the National League, the American League has four teams that have exceeded expectations during the first third of the 2001 season.

Biggest surprise: The Minnesota Twins with their tiny payroll are contending in the AL Central even though they are as starless as a foggy night.

Cristian Guzman? Matt Lawton? Torii Hunter? Doug Mientkiewicz?

As Butch and Sundance once wondered: Who are these guys?

The key to the Twins' success has been starting pitching.

Brad Radke (7-2, 3.59 earned-run average) and Eric Milton (6-3, 3.43) have shown much promise in recent seasons. That the budget-strapped, attendance-plagued Twins have been able to resist trading them is remarkable.

Another starter, Joe Mays, is 7-3 with a 2.98 ERA.

Are the Twins this year's Chicago White Sox (also known as one-year wonders)? It's hard to say since they have so much youth in the lineup. They could be good for years to come.

Whether the Twins can keep pace with the Cleveland Indians over the next two months remains to be seen. It's unlikely the Twins will be trading for many high-priced rent-a-players as the trading deadline approaches.

You know the Indians will be dealing.

Best record: Despite losing Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in the past three seasons, the Seattle Mariners have the best record in baseball.

Free-agent outfielder Ichiro Suzuki from Japan has had import success to rival Honda and Toyota (.361 batting average, 31 multi-hit games, 54 runs scored in 58 games).

Again, strong pitching is the key to this strong start as Aaron Sele and Freddy Garcia remain unbeaten in 2001.

Honorable mention: After sitting out the 2000 postseason, the Indians and Boston Red Sox are poised to return to the playoffs.

OK, we agree that calling the Tribe and Red Sox playoff contenders hardly merits surprise status. But both teams are in first place despite having to deal with their share of early injuries.

Manny Ramirez has been the key addition for the Red Sox. He's putting up Triple Crown numbers -- his .381 batting average and 20 homers lead the American League, while he is only two RBIs behind Seattle's Bret Boone.

The Fenway faithful haven't had a chance to miss injured shortstop Nomar Garciaparra because Ramirez and ace Pedro Martinez have the Red Sox in a two-team race with their hated rivals, the New York Yankees, for the AL East title.

The Indians left training camp with a lot of doubts and unsold tickets. Things are a lot brighter 10 weeks later.

The Indians began the season with 40 percent of their starting rotation on injured reserve (Charles Nagy, Jaret Wright), but the solid batting lineup (Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez, Jim Thome, Ellis Burks, Marty Cordova) has produced enough runs for the Tribe to win two out of every three games.

Finley's health: The main concern at Jacobs Field is the health of 38-year-old Chuck Finley. If his neck problem doesn't heal soon, general manager John Hart may be looking for another arm.

Biggest flop: Tough choice. In this corner are the Texas Rangers, who gave Rodriguez a 10-year, $252-million contract and have lost about two out of every three games they've played.

Then, there are the Chicago White Sox, who surprised everyone with the best record in the AL last year then traded for David Wells.

The White Sox have plummeted from contender to pretender status, but the Rangers are our choice simply for spending so much and getting so little in return.

MVP: Ramirez's bat is speaking volumes, but Gonzalez could challenge if Manny hurts himself.

Cy Young Award: Pedro, no contest.

XTom Williams covers Major League Baseball for The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.




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