Play Ball! Twins open tonight

Published 8:56 am Friday, April 1, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — On a warm day early in spring training, the Minnesota Twins were taking batting practice at their winter home.

As Denard Span and Danny Valencia were taking cuts, however, the quiet morning would occasionally be interrupted by a security guard’s cell phone ringing. No big deal, except that the phone would play Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” every time it rang.

Several Twins looked at the guard and shook their heads. Then first baseman Justin Morneau heard it from the dugout.

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“You need to get a new ring tone for that thing!” he hollered at the guard, who also had a tattoo of the New York Yankees emblem on his right calf.

No matter where the Twins go, they just can’t get away from the Yankees.

As the two-time defending AL Central champions prepare for their second season at Target Field, they do so knowing that all they have accomplished in the last decade — six division titles, MVP awards for Morneau and Joe Mauer, the new ballpark, an expanding payroll — hasn’t amounted to much when they meet up with the Yankees.

The Twins are 2-12 against the Yankees in the postseason since 2003, including two straight sweeps. Manager Ron Gardenhire, who won the AL manager of the year award for guiding the Twins to 94 victories last season, is 18-57 in his career against them.

Last year, the Twins’ magical run in Target Field ended with a familiar thud, with injuries to Morneau, Mauer, closer Joe Nathan and DH Jim Thome catching up with them against the deep and poised Yankees. After putting up a fight in Game 1 of the ALDS, the Twins faded, unable to come up with the timely hit that Derek Jeter and Co. always seem to find.

“It’s frustrating because you get to the playoffs and it seems like it ends quick,” Mauer said. “And it’s frustrating and disappointing when you don’t have guys like Nathan and Morneau to help you out.”

They’re both back this year.

Morneau appears to be ready to go after missing the last three months of the season with a concussion and Nathan returns after missing the entire year because of Tommy John surgery.

Other than that, the Twins didn’t make too many changes. They jettisoned their starting middle infield of shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Orlando Hudson in favor of Alexi Casilla, who has disappointed in his five seasons with the Twins, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who was signed from Japan.

The rest of the starting lineup remains intact. The key will be keeping Mauer and Morneau healthy. Mauer, who starts an eight-year, $184 million contract extension this year, had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in the offseason and didn’t catch in games for the first three weeks.

Morneau has missed extended time over the last two seasons for a back injury and the concussion, and is still working himself back into form after the long layoff.

“Looking back on last year, it’s pretty amazing we were first to clinch with the things that happened,” Mauer said. “I don’t think people realize that we were pretty beat up. Even though we clinched early, I was dealing with some things, Thome was dealing with some things. Up and down the lineup guys were grinding it out.”

The Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox both made big moves this offseason in an effort to leapfrog the Twins, whose payroll has increased to about $113 million – a once unfathomable number for what had historically been one of baseball’s thriftiest franchises.

The Twins will pay Mauer $23 million this season and $19 million combined to their closers, Nathan and Matt Capps. They paid $5 million just for the right to negotiate with Nishioka and re-signed opening day starter Carl Pavano to a two-year, $16.5 million deal, all in an effort to get out of that first round.

“We’re not just looking to win the first round,” Gardenhire said. “We want the World Series. That’s the goal.”

Perhaps more than ever, Minnesota needs its Twins.

The Vikings are coming off a 6-10 season and its players are currently locked out by NFL owners, The Timberwolves have endured another long, painful rebuilding season in the NBA and the Wild have faded from the NHL playoff race. And the University of Minnesota basketball and hockey programs both were disappointing, leading to a winter malaise the likes that hasn’t been seen in the Twin Cities in some time.

Maybe that’s why fans have been gobbling up Twins tickets faster than the team can provide them. Twins ticket officials say they haven’t seen a pace like this since they won their first World Series title in 1987.

The sellouts should keep piling up at Target Field, with fans hoping that they will get to see more than just a couple of games in the postseason.

“Playoffs, it’s a different atmosphere,” Twins GM Bill Smith said. “Anything can happen when you get in those playoffs. We need to get it to be our turn. We need to make our own breaks and see if we can advance past that first round.”