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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

System works for Minnesota

There are unlikely success stories in baseball this year, and the Detroit Tigers would rank near the top of the list. But what about the Minnesota Twins? How many of us saw this coming? Yet again.

When will we learn? The Twins have a system. The fundamentals apply. They cultivate pitchers who throw strikes and fielders who catch the ball. They get runners on base, move them over, and drive them home. They play in the image of the people who live in the Twin Cities. They are honest and hard-working and they give you a lot for your money.

And they are going to the playoffs again with a payroll ($63 million going into the season) approximately half the size of the team they beat at Fenway Park last night.

Amazing. It is Sept. 20, and the Red Sox have been done for more than three weeks while the Twins are winning with rookie pitchers and talented faces with no names.

OK, so maybe you'd recognize Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer, and/or Johan Santana, but you could take the rest of the Twins, line 'em up shoulder-to-shoulder in Quincy Market and challenge Hub pedestrians to identify them.

Hmmm. Let's guess. The New England Revolution? The Dropkick Murphys? The Sons of Sam Horn?

No. These are the Minnesota Twins, owners of a 64-28 record since June 7, and a team nobody wants to face in October -- particularly in a five-game series, which could mean facing Santana twice and playing two games in the pinball arcade known as the Metrodome. The Twins are 50-24 at home this year, including a 3-0 record vs. your Boston Red Sox. Counting spring training, the Twins are 8-1 overall against your Red Sox. Boston's lone victory was a Grapefruit League contest, which was won only after the Twins had clinched the coveted Mayor's Cup.

It's startling to examine how the fortunes of these two teams have changed after the Sox arrived in the Twin Cities June 12. The Red Sox were a first-place team back then and no one in New England dared make any plans for October. Surely the Sons of Terry Francona were bound for their four straight playoff autumn. The Twins, meanwhile, were reeling, dumping players, and dodging the barbs and arrows of local fans and media. The big story in the Twin Cities was the announcement that the Minnesota Wild had hired some guy named Chris Snow.

Minnesota's three-game sweep of the Sox triggered a four-month surge, and last night the Twins pulled within a half-game of the Tigers (even in the loss column). They lead the White Sox by 4 1/2 (five in the loss column) in the wild card chase. Detroit lost at Chicago, 7-0.

Citing the June sweep of the Sox, Minnesota GM Terry Ryan said, ``That's about the time everything started to fall into place, and we've been on a roll ever since."

Ryan is sort of the anti-Theo Epstein. He's bald, he's managed to stay out of the limelight, and he's been on something of a hot streak when it comes to deal-making since giving up a tad early on a young David Ortiz after the 2002 season.

Originally brought into baseball by Oriole savant Frank Cashen, Ryan is the man who acquired closer Joe Nathan, starter Francisco Liriano, and starter Boof Bonser (young Mr. Bonser legally changed his name from John to Boof) for A.J. Pierzynski before the 2004 season. Ryan also got switch-hitting third baseman Nick Punto and pitcher Carlos Silva for the immortal Eric Milton.

``We like to have our guys play defense, we like to have our pitchers throw the ball over the plate, and we like guys with character," said Ryan. ``I'm not sure I'd call it a `Twins way,' but I think we stress those things as much as anybody. We're certainly better than we were in April and May. Now we have more speed, range, and athleticism, and we don't give up many outs."

Santana is going to win the Cy Young Award, but Minnesota lost Liriano last week when the 22-year-old lefthander reinjured his pitching elbow against Oakland. Liriano is done for the year, and Brad Radke (broken shoulder) most likely is, too. That leaves two rookies (Matt Garza, who started last night, and Bonser, who starts tonight) in the rotation -- plus Scott Baker, who came into this season with nine big league starts under his belt.

``We know that's going to be the way it is for us the rest of the way," said manager Ron Gardenhire, a direct descendant of Tom Kelly (a fundamental extremist who won World Series with the Twins in 1987 and '91). ``But we've got our sights set on winning the division."

Dennis Eckersley, who toiled in the AL West when the Twins were division rivals, remembered, ``We used to say, `These guys play nine innings.' They'd play so hard. And that's how they play now."

It's not just smoke and mirrors. The Twins came to Boston ranked first in the American League in hitting, second in pitching, and second in fielding. Justin Morneau and Mauer are legitimate MVP candidates (they're also roommates who commute to work from Mauer's house). The bullpen's pretty good, too. Nathan has 33 saves and the Twins are 68-1 leading after seven, 76-0 leading after eight.

Oh, and they don't have any Mannys being Manny, either. There were no fewer than 20 Twins on the Fenway lawn at 2 p.m. yesterday, and not one player was on the bus when it left the team hotel for the ballpark at 4 p.m. Everybody was already at the park.

``This organization is built around guys who work hard and do the little things," said backup catcher Mike Redmond. ``We play hard, grind it out, and come in under the radar."

So there's some strange symmetry for this three-game set. You've got a team bound for the playoffs -- flying under the radar -- against a team that's been in free-fall since Labor Day. And after tomorrow night they won't meet again until next spring, when they resume the joust for the coveted Mayor's Cup.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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