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Five Twins to watch in showdown series with Chicago

The contributions of Jim Thome, Michael Cuddyer and three pitchers over the final two weeks may determine how far the Twins can go.

If the American League Central Division race were a situation comedy — then again, on some nights who’s to say it’s not? — Ron Gardenhire and Ozzie Guillen would be the Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza of the cast. Funny individually, funny together, and intertwined in ways that never fail to surprise and amuse.

No other managers in baseball could have played off each other like Guillen and Gardenhire did Aug. 11 at U.S. Cellular Field, when both came out to argue a warning to both benches by umpire Mike DiMuro, and Guillen respectfully gestured for Gardenhire to hold up, so he could engage DiMuro first. Gardenhire stood with a bemused smile, as if waiting in line behind his crazy neighbor at the hardware store.

And though television never shows this, Guillen and Gardenhire apparently talk to each other from their respective dugouts during the game. That’s what Twins reliever Matt Guerrier says, anyway. “They do it all the time,” he said. What do they talk about? “I don’t know,” he said, smiling. “I’m not close enough to hear, but everybody sees it.”

Any Twins-White Sox series is a hoot regardless of when it falls on the schedule. Their final three games of the season, beginning Tuesday night in Chicago, could settle the race, with the Twins leading by six games with 19 to play. But no one should be surprised if the Whities rise up, and the thing goes down to the final day for the fourth time in five years. That’s how things work in baseball’s black-and-blue division. “This ought to be a lot of fun,” Gardenhire said.

For now, Guillen owns two things Gardenhire lacks: A world championship ring as a manager, and an American League Manager of the Year Award, both won in 2005. The latter is more likely to land in Gardenhire’s hands this year than the former, with the Twins overcoming the loss of closer Joe Nathan for the season following Tommy John surgery and former MVP Justin Morneau for the second half with a concussion, along with all the other pitching and injury problems.

Gardenhire is certainly due after five second-place M.O.Y. finishes since 2003, three in the last four years. Ron Washington of Texas and Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon will give him a run, and Maddon may be unstoppable if the Rays edge the Yankees for the AL East title — a scenario that, if the Twins hold on, likely means another Division Series against the Yankees, since teams from the same division can’t play each other in the first round.

Guillen inadvertently helped Gardenhire last winter by not bringing Jim Thome back after the Dodgers let him go, feeling the Sox had enough DH candidates in Andruw Jones, Mark Kotsay, Carlos Quentin and Paul Konerko. Thome’s 23 home runs in part-time play, 13 since the All-Star Break, provided almost as big a boost as Delmon Young’s comeback season (16 homers, 98 RBI).

”We’re not in second place right now because of Jimmy,” Guillen told the Chicago Sun-Times last week. ”We’re in second place right now because Minnesota plays good, and we have had two very bad months. We played good without Jimmy, and we played bad without Jimmy. That’s the way it is.

Jim Thome
Jim Thome

”They can say, ‘Blame it on Ozzie.’ Why not? I’ll take the blame. Believe me, if the Minnesota Twins win, it’s a team effort. It’s not just Jim Thome. Did Jim help? Yes, he did, a lot. I’m glad for him.”

Thome is one of five players whose contributions over these final two weeks should determine how far the Twins go. The chain of events when Morneau went out, with Michael Cuddyer moving to first base and Jason Kubel replacing him in right field, forced Gardenhire to play Thome more than expected (245 at-bats and counting). Thome’s recent back and abdominal muscle troubles are worrisome, but it’s not like the Twins have any choice.

Here are four other Twins players to watch:

1. MATT CAPPS. Every day, Capps looks more and more like a righthanded Eddie Guardado, a closer lacking overpowering stuff who constantly pitches himself into trouble. And now he’s annoyed the manager.

Last Wednesday, with two runs in and the Twins clinging to a 4-3 lead in the ninth, bench coach Steve Liddle called for the high-kicking Capps to use a slide step with speedster Jarrod Dyson, the potential tying run, at first. Capps did, but for only one pitch. Two pitches later, Dyson stole second easily, which left Gardenhire fuming.

“He needs to use the slide step,” Gardenhire said. “If he uses the slide step, Joe [Mauer] has a chance [to throw out the runner].”

Capps acknowledged he needs to work on it. “It’s something every pitcher has to get comfortable with,” he said. Especially someone who allows as many base runners as he does.

2. MICHAEL CUDDYER. Because the Twins aren’t pressing Morneau to return — a smart move — the Twins’ most versatile player might play every inning of every game at first base the rest of the way, because there’s nobody else. Jose Morales, whom Gardenhire continually calls Cuddyer’s backup, has never played a single professional inning at the position. When Morales did play the infield, in rookie ball in 2001 and ’02, he was so bad (21 errors in 88 games) that the Twins converted him to catcher. Gardenhire said he might pull Cuddyer for Morales or Tolbert in the final innings of a blowout, but it might have to be 25-0.

3. JESSE CRAIN: Crain’s stunning 0.99 ERA and .146 opponents’ average since the All-Star Break might be the most unexpected Twins development of the season. Would Gardenhire trust him in a big situation — say, with a two-run lead in the eighth inning with Alex Rodriguez strolling to the plate? We already know Guerrier can’t get A-Rod out.

4. FRANCISCO LIRIANO. Even with his electric stuff, Liriano (13-7. 3.24 ERA) still gets nervous and flustered, especially in the first inning. For that reason, Carl Pavano might be the better choice for Game 1 of a playoff series. But Liriano, Tuesday’s probable starter, is to the 2010 Twins what Johan Santana used to be — the starter who absolutely must win in postseason to energize the clubhouse and give fatalistic Twins fans hope. One cautionary note: Liriano’s 172 1/3 innings pitched are approaching his professional career high, 199 1/3 in 2008. The Twins are aware; his last five starts all came on extra rest.

And another thing …
• After Ben Revere struck out in his first major-league at-bat last Tuesday night, Delmon Young put a brotherly arm around Revere as they headed to their outfield positions. “Delmon said, ‘In my first major-league at-bat, I struck out, too,’ ” Revere said. “That made me feel a little better.”

Though technically correct, Young massaged the truth a little. In Young’s first major-league plate appearance, for Tampa Bay on Aug. 29, 2006, Freddy Garcia of the White Sox hit him with a pitch in the second inning. But hit batsmen, like walks, don’t count as times at bat. Young’s first official at-bat came in the fourth, when he struck out. His next time up, he hit a two-run homer. (Source: Still, give Young props for trying to cheer up his new teammate.

• I love stuff like this. Last Wednesday before batting practice, video of Zack Greinke, the night’s starter for Kansas City, popped up on two flat-screen televisions in the Twins clubhouse. Five hitters sat at their lockers across from the TVs. Orlando Hudson, Young and Jason Kubel gabbed among themselves and never looked up. Cuddyer was busy doing an interview. The only player watching intently was J.J. Hardy. One guess who broke up Greinke’s no-hit bid in the fifth and homered two innings later. “I’d say it was a coincidence,” Hardy said.