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A's, Twins bring plenty of momentum into first round

Associated Press

Minneapolis — The Minnesota Twins clinched a spot in the playoffs last Monday, resulting in a celebratory champagne shower in their clubhouse afterward.

They rejoiced with right-hander Brad Radke, who threw five strong innings with a torn labrum and broken shoulder socket in his anxious return from a month-long absence.

Then on Sunday, after finishing the regular season with a win, they watched the Detroit Tigers complete an incredible collapse and hand them the division title.

It's been a crazy week, but the Twins — who closed the season 71-33 after starting 25-33 — are not concerned about an emotional letdown and coming out flat to start their first-round series against the Oakland Athletics. Game 1 was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, with Johan Santana set to square off against Barry Zito.

"We worked hard to get here, and I don't think you are going to have to use a cattle prod to get them going," manager Ron Gardenhire said.

Minnesota's rotation after Santana is rookie Boof Bonser, Radke and Carlos Silva. Oakland will counter with Esteban Loaiza, with the rest yet to be announced by manager Ken Macha — who is choosing between Danny Haren, Rich Harden and Joe Blanton for two spots.

Ousted a year ago when he failed to reach an agreement to renew his contract with the team, Macha was rehired about a week later and helped lead the A's to one of their familiar second-half surges.

In fact, at 48-26, they had the best record in baseball after the All-Star break — mere percentage points better than the Twins.

Minnesota returned to the postseason after missing out last season, and Oakland is back following a two-year absence. The A's, of course, have an awful recent October history, having been bounced in the first round each time from 2000-03 and losing all nine games with a chance to eliminate their opponent.

"It's a new team, you know, so we're just going into this with a fresh outlook," Zito said.

Likely in his final season with the A's, Zito — the eccentric left-hander with the big, looping curveball — is determined to end his team's trend of postseason failures.

A big help this year has been Frank Thomas, who left the White Sox and totaled 39 homers and 114 runs as the designated hitter. The Big Hurt was hurt last year and missed out on all the fun when Chicago won the World Series, but he's eager to fully experience some success this fall.

"This is the first time in a long time I have been with a team that guys look forward to coming to the clubhouse every day and being around each other throughout the day," Thomas said. "So we got a great mix."

The Twins made a brief appearance Monday morning at the Metrodome, where hallways, stairs and the clubhouse carpet were still sticky from the beer and champagne spray that followed their victory over Chicago and Detroit's extra-inning loss to Kansas City the day before.

"I think a lot of guys were still in shock with all the stuff that happened," catcher Joe Mauer said.

Minnesota's turnaround was movie-script material. Playing in the strongest division in the majors, the Twins overcame a deficit that was as big as 121/2 games and still 101/2 games on Aug. 7.

With Mauer, Santana and fellow MVP candidate Justin Morneau, they're stacked with more star power than usual — and probably more dangerous than any of their predecessors in 2002-04. That's despite a season-ending elbow injury to rookie left-hander Francisco Liriano and Radke's ailing shoulder.

With Mauer, Cuddyer (24 homers, 109 RBIs), Morneau (34, 130) and Torii Hunter (31, 98), the Twins have their best heart-of-the-order since their first World Series title team in 1987. Zito called his opponent "a little more of kind of a normal playoff kind of team" than the one he faced in 2002. Minnesota beat Oakland in five games that year to advance to the AL championship series.

If all else fails, there is always the supremely confident Santana, who is the favorite to win his second Cy Young Award in three seasons.

"I've done it for a while now," Santana said. "I know what to do. I know what it takes to win games, so I'm good to go."

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