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No consolation prize for surprising Twins, but Gardenhire and staff deserve accolades — and new contracts

Two flawed teams played a nearly perfect game Tuesday night.

Two flawed teams played a nearly perfect game Tuesday night. The Chicago White Sox were still celebrating their 1-0 victory over the Twins when I ducked out of their clubhouse — miraculously, without getting collaterally doused with champagne — and headed for an interview room where various White Sox were supposed to speak.

Three steps out the door, I ran into someone I never expected to see — Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. Still in his uniform pants and a T-shirt, Gardenhire looked inconsolable, like his dog died. He had come over to congratulate Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen, returning a classy gesture Guillen made when the Twins clinched the 2004 American League Central Division title at U.S. Cellular Field.

Guillen spotted Gardenhire, slapped his hand hard, and hugged him. That moment of respect, from two men who admire each other, offered the perfect final image from a regular season that no one, not even the participants, expected to finish quite like this.

In the end, two potential Hall of Famers and one weasel decided this for the White Sox — Jim Thome, whose moon-shot homer off Nick Blackburn might have hit the Dan Ryan Expressway if the center-field terrace hadn’t gotten in the way; Ken Griffey Jr., the aging 10-time Gold Glove winner whose arm responded to Michael Cuddyer’s challenge; and old friend A.J. Pierzynski, who picked Griffey’s short-hop throw and held on as Cuddyer steamrolled him, proving that he’s still as tough as he is annoying.

(It’s worth noting that Pierzynski, for all his quirks, contributed more to his team Tuesday night than the catcher who succeeded him, Joe Mauer, did for the Twins. Sure, Mauer won his second American League batting championship in three years. But in three hitless at-bats, the only ball Mauer put in play was a bunt. Mauer often bunts when he’s not seeing the ball well, which appeared to be the case when he struck out his first two times up.)

Staff turned team into over-achievers
For the folks in uniform, there can be no palatable consolation prize when a team comes this close to postseason, no matter how improbably, and falls short. Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon will be the American League manager of the year, a righteous call. But Gardenhire and his staff deserve oodles of credit for squeezing 88 victories out of a roster that had no business winning as many games as it did — something the smarter guys in that clubhouse, like Cuddyer and Joe Nathan and Mike Redmond, candidly conceded in the season’s final weeks.

The Sean Connery line from “The Untouchables” about taking a knife to a gunfight (minus the ethnic slur, of course) accurate reflects what Twins management forced upon the field staff this year after Johan Santana, Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva departed. With so many new players, the Twins coaches spent an inordinate amount of time teaching, often in pre-batting practice sessions at the Metrodome.

The likable Carlos Gomez had so much to learn that it often seemed nobody in the Mets system taught him anything. During games, first base coach Jerry White’s job included positioning the outfielders and, in some cases, infielders Brian Buscher and Alexi Casilla. Hitting coach Joe Vavra joking called White’s task “moving five guys in five seconds,” which wasn’t far off. Pitching coach Rick Anderson developed four quality young starters, and Francisco Liriano’s delayed, though successful, return makes this the club’s strength for 2009.

Opposing managers like Guillen and Detroit’s Jim Leyland repeatedly praised Gardenhire and his staff for their diligence and instruction. And general manager Bill Smith called it “their finest body of work.”

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine another general manager in baseball cobbling a worse collection of infielders from other organizations than Smith did in his first season succeeding Terry Ryan. With the Pohlad family responsible for covering cost overruns on the new ballpark, Smith had to do it on the cheap.

Third baseman Mike Lamb was released, and oft-injured shortstop Adam Everett would have been, had the Twins not run short of infielders in August. Brendan Harris proved so weak turning double plays at second base that Gardenhire plugged him in more often at short or third. Smith lucked out when Casilla and Buscher developed into hitters.

Key decisions ahead for offseason
Though Buscher improved defensively, he lacks the pop to be a long-range answer. So the Twins go into this offseason still needing an everyday shortstop and third baseman. The Twins may again pursue Hank Blalock if he’s healthy and available (the Rangers hold a $6.2 million option for 2009) or perhaps San Diego’s Kevin Kouzmanoff, since the Padres need a center fielder. Matt Tolbert may factor in at short, too. If nothing else, he’s a cheaper utility alternative to Nick Punto.

It will also be interesting to see what the Twins do in the outfield, provided a healthy Cuddyer returns to right field.

Denard Span deserves a shot to unseat Gomez in center field. Don’t be surprised if the Twins try to package Delmon Young and a pitcher for a quality third baseman with power, and move Gomez to left. I’m not sure Gomez will ever be a disciplined hitter, but I can’t see the Twins giving up on him yet. One thing the defensive-minded Twins can’t afford, though, are two error-prone outfielders; Gomez and Young each had eight.

Look for an overhaul in the bullpen, too. Jose Mijares was a find, but the Twins should not expect Pat Neshek to return from a serious elbow injury and immediately solve their problems. The Mets, Brewers, White Sox and Twins all learned down the stretch that bullpen effectiveness can be fleeting. Remember: One fewer bullpen meltdown on that 14-game road trip, and the Twins, not the White Sox, are playing Tampa Bay on Thursday.

There’s one more thing the Twins should do, while the season is still fresh. Last week, Gardenhire noted how stressful this season has been for him. Guillen, noting the 50-year-old Gardenhire’s gray hair, said he looked like his grandfather.

Gardenhire is signed through 2009, and extending his contract through 2010 (with similar deals for all his coaches, whose contracts are up now) would be an appropriate reward for making this summer memorable. That’s a lot better than a hug.