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They'd be double trouble

Santana and Liriano make Twins tough

We asked five major league baseball experts (three general managers, one special assignment scout, and one manager) to list the teams they wouldn't want to face in the playoffs in each league, in order of toughness.

The consensus and comments were interesting.

American League:
1. Minnesota: All five ranked the Twins the toughest team if the playoffs started today.

Comment: ``If they make the wild card, you're looking at [Johan] Santana and [Francisco] Liriano on the road and Brad Radke at home in the Metrodome, where they're tough to beat in a five-game series. If they have Torii Hunter back healthy and if they ever get Alfonso Soriano or another big bat, order the World Series tickets. Best thing that could happen to everyone -- make sure the Twins don't make it."

2. Boston: The Sox got the majority of the second-place votes. Concerns included Jason Varitek struggling in September/October because of workload, enough healthy pitchers, and asking young relievers to do too much in pressure situations.

Comment: ``Assuming they win the division, they'll have home-field advantage. That's huge at Fenway. They play very well in their home ballpark and they have the option of setting up their rotation with [Curt] Schilling and [Josh] Beckett, or they could put [Tim] Wakefield [if and when he returns] in between them and start Beckett on the road. They're a tough team because their fans really give them an adrenaline boost. They might also be the most complete team in that they don't beat themselves and they have [Jonathan] Papelbon at the end of the game."

3. Detroit: The Tigers were high on everyone's list, but even baseball people wonder how long the good times will last. Will this be the best regular-season team and then fizzle in the postseason?

Comment: ``By now, everyone in the game understands this team isn't going away. They might have the best manager [Jim Leyland], and while there's a slight possibility the kids [Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya] might feel the pressure in October, I'll bet you anything they'll continue what they're doing right now."

4. Los Angeles: There's a lot of respect for this team for the way it's stuck around. All the experts agreed the Angels need a trade for offense to reach the upper echelon.

Comment: ``Their pitching is solid again and if they improve their lineup with a Soriano or a [Miguel] Tejada . . . they have the momentum and the hunger to do some damage in the playoffs. Mike Scioscia isn't as aggressive as Ozzie Guillen, but he's a good motivator who has already done an unbelievable job not allowing that team to quit."

5. Chicago: This is a team that has definitely fallen in the eyes of our Fab Five.

Comment: ``They went through the dip they're going through now toward the end of last season. This team is still very talented. Don't ever count them out. You can say [Guillen] is a lot of things, but he might be the best motivator in baseball. [General manager] Kenny Williams is probably going to do something [with a trade] to jolt this team. I think they made one big mistake this season: They should have started Brandon McCarthy from Day 1."

National League:
1. St. Louis: Our guys still believe the Cardinals are a better overall team than the Mets.

Comment: ``They have the best player in the game [Albert Pujols] who can hit anyone at any time. Chris Carpenter is pitching very well again and back to his Cy Young status. Mark Mulder is coming back [he starts rehab Aug. 6], and between Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan, they have enough to beat you in a short series."

2. New York: Omar Minaya has done so much to put this team in position to easily win the East and own the best record in the NL. But our panel believes more big-time pitching -- perhaps Barry Zito or Dontrelle Willis -- is needed for this team to get to the World Series.

Comment: ``They might have the most talented lineup in the National League, but with Pedro Martínez and Tom Glavine at the top of the rotation -- a very good 1-2 punch -- you hope these guys have enough left by the playoffs. This is a team that desperately needs [another] starting pitcher."

3. San Francisco: Barry Bonds is still a force and the Giants pose matchup problems for a lot of teams, but they've been nicked up lately.

Comment: ``With Jason Schmidt, Matt Morris, and Matt Cain at the top of the rotation, they have enough pitching to win a short series and their offense can put up runs, especially if Shea Hillenbrand offers some middle-of-the-lineup thump after Barry Bonds."

4. Cincinnati: The Reds have a formidable lineup and they've attempted to shore up their bullpen, but the depth of their starting pitching seems to be a big issue moving forward.

Comment: ``It's great what Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo have done, but it's tough for a guy like Arroyo to be your 1 or 2 in the playoffs. Normally, he'd be your No. 3 or 4."

5. San Diego: Our panel feels general manager Kevin Towers has the ability to do something in a trade to acquire a third baseman and a pitcher and make the Padres a formidable playoff team.

Comment: ``The division is jam-packed and wide open for anyone to take. It's the one division where one big deal could turn the tide and Kevin has the ability to do that as well as anyone."

Garza is on the fast track

There's no doubt Twins general manager Terry Ryan wants to do everything he can to secure a playoff trip after an improbable 34-10 run (starting June 7) to get back into wild-card contention.

Ryan admitted last week, ``This is a dream. We never expected to come back this far."

He wants a big hitter (Alfonso Soriano) and another starting pitcher. But he has 97 reasons not to make a major trade.

That's the velocity of Rochester righthanded pitching phenom Matt Garza's heater during last Tuesday's three-hit, 1-0 shutout of Charlotte.

In Garza's 21 minor league starts this year (from Single A to Triple A), the Twins' top pick in '05 is 13-4 with a 2.03 ERA. In 123 2/3 innings, he has 142 strikeouts and 30 walks. In Triple A, he's 2-1 with a 2.05 ERA.

Obviously, Garza, who threw 127 pitches in the shutout (he walked two and struck out eight), is the pitcher everybody wants. Former Twins manager and now consultant Tom Kelly was in awe of what he saw from Garza, including a 97-mile-per-hour heater in the ninth inning Tuesday.

The Twins didn't want to rush the kid to the big leagues, but they have faced criticism for their handling of another youngster: They should have had phenom Francisco Liriano starting sooner than he did.

The Twins have been struggling with Carlos Silva's and Scott Baker's inconsistency at the end of the rotation, so there is some discussion of calling up Garza and letting him do his thing.

Buck didn't stop with Vincent

Former commissioner Fay Vincent was the chairman of the committee that elected 17 people affiliated with the Negro Leagues to the Hall of Fame last February. When the secret ballots were tallied, Buck O'Neil was not among those to be enshrined in Cooperstown today.

Vincent did not vote, but he said from his Connecticut home that he was surprised O'Neil, a two-time Negro Leagues batting champion and the first African-American coach in the major leagues, wasn't among the 17 inductees.

``I was surprised but I can't go against the committee vote," Vincent said. ``You needed nine of the 12 votes and there were two players -- Buck, who is a dear friend of mine, and Minnie Minoso -- who were left off who have sparked discussion. But this was a committee of 12 experts who really know their Negro Leagues history."

Vincent said he's proposed the Hall start a Lifetime Achievement award that would be perfect for those who have given so much to the game and have worn many hats but who may not be Hall-worthy -- like O'Neil, who was also a longtime scout, or Johnny Pesky of the Red Sox.

The 94-year-old O'Neil is expected in Cooperstown today to support the inductees.

O'Neil received an honor of another kind at the Northern League All-Star Game last week when he became the oldest player to play in a professional baseball game. The Kansas City T-Bones had signed him to a one-day contract. He drew two walks, one intentional.

The T-Bones have collected more than 10,000 signatures on a petition to trumpet O'Neil's Hall of Fame candidacy.

Etc.

Verlander gets down, dirty
Wading through the American League Cy Young candidates is going to be difficult for voters of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. At the moment, three rookie pitchers -- Minnesota's Francisco Liriano, Detroit's Justin Verlander, and Boston's Jonathan Papelbon -- should be considered. Verlander (2.69 ERA), who will aim for his 14th win today, is holding batters with runners in scoring position to a .174 average. Former Sox infielder Ramon Vazquez faced Verlander last week: ``He's got a [Roy ] Halladay breaking ball and a fastball that speaks for itself. " Indians outfielder Jason Michaels and Vazquez likened Verlander's stuff to Josh Beckett and John Smoltz. Verlander has been very successful with a two-strike breaking pitch that Vazquez called ``dirty."

Sweeney on the mend
A couple of hitters could become available to well-to-do teams and sneak through waivers after the trading deadline: the Padres' Ryan Klesko (shoulder/neck) and Kansas City's Mike Sweeney, who began a rehab assignment at Single A Iowa last week. Sweeney is looking to return for the Aug. 8 series against Boston at Kauffman Stadium. Sweeney, once one of the game's top hitters, has been out since May 1 with a bulging disk.

Everett went way of dinosaurs
The reason Carl Everett lost his job as Seattle's DH had nothing to do with his belief that dinosaurs never existed or that he was pining for old pal Shea Hillenbrand. The reason the Mariners dumped him -- and acquired Ben Broussard from the Indians for outfield prospect Shin-Soo Choo -- was detailed in the numbers. Among AL players, Everett ranked 85th in average (.227), 83d in OBP (.297), 81st in slugging (.360), and 84th in OPS (.658). As a team, the Mariners ranked last with a .680 OPS. Everett had become a Designated Out. Broussard wears out righthanded pitching (.360, 12 homers, 42 RBIs, in 222 at-bats entering the weekend ) and will platoon with Eduardo Perez, who wears out lefties (.327, 9 homers, 24 RBIs, in 101 at-bats).

One right move made the difference
Padres righthander Jake Peavy, who entered his last start with a 5.15 ERA and has been inexplicably bad, made a simple move on the rubber, pushing off on the third base side. That's what he did in 2004 when he won the NL ERA title. It worked. He allowed two runs in seven innings as the Padres beat the Dodgers, 10-3, last Wednesday, Peavy's first win in nine starts. ``He was the Jake Peavy we know," said manager Bruce Bochy. Peavy helped himself with a homer, a double, and four RBIs.

Eighth time's a charm?
The Reds' Bronson Arroyo, who pitches today in Milwaukee, will make his eighth attempt at his 10th win. He failed again last Wednesday when he squandered a 5-1 lead against the Astros and gave up six runs in the sixth inning of an 8-5 loss . . . Will the Astros lose two starting pitchers to retirement? While Roger Clemens might hang it up after this season, there's a lot of speculation that Andy Pettitte might call it a career as well.

Durham finds power switch
Giants second baseman Ray Durham has reinvented himself as a power hitter. Heading into yesterday, he led the Giants with 18 homers. Last Tuesday night, he homered from both sides of the plate for the first time in his career. Signed four years ago as a leadoff hitter, he's now batting fifth, behind Barry Bonds. ``He's become a slugger now," manager Felipe Alou said. ``He's a fifth-spot hitter. By us allowing him to hit there, he's become a monster hitter. He wasn't like that when he came here. I always thought he could be a middle-lineup hitter, but he's been a leadoff hitter for so long, I don't think he thought he could do it. Now, I think he can bat anywhere."

Ringolsby honored for service
Best wishes to old friend Tracy Ringolsby of the Rocky Mountain News, who will be honored today with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Baseball has been Ringolsby's love and passion for more than 30 years. The Spink Award is presented annually to a sportswriter ``for meritorious contributions to baseball writing."

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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