Team surprised to be getting little respect

Ron Gardenhire says there must be some really improved teams if the Twins are seeded fourth in the division.

FORT MYERS, FLA. - Everyone was in a hurry on Saturday.

"Three at-bats, three pitches," Twins outfielder Torii Hunter said.

The defending American League Central Division champions were ready to leave a vapor trail in Fort Myers, go north and start the regular season.

Finish spring play fast. Start the season fast. Return to the postseason for the fifth time in six seasons and, this time, hang around for longer than three games.

But what's the hurry?

Two ESPN analysts predict the Twins will finish fourth in the AL Central this season. Sports Illustrated has the Twins 17th in its preseason power rankings.

The league apparently has passed by the Twins, who were 96-66 last season.

"Man, what is that?" Twins outfielder Rondell White said. "There are people who try to overanalyze way too much."

White, and many in the clubhouse, are wondering how a team can be lightly regarded when it has batting champion Joe Mauer, Most Valuable Player Justin Morneau, two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, infielders who hit at least .290 last season, a top closer and one of the best bullpens in the game.

"Especially when we won the division last year," White said. "People have too much time on their hands."We think we're OK, and we're seeded fourth," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "There better be some darn good teams if we're seeded fourth."

So they now have a second source for motivation. The first source is their three-game postseason elimination after playing near .700 ball after June 7. Twins fans rocked as their team won the division title on the last day of the regular season. But before everyone could exhale, the Twins were swept by Oakland in the American League Division Series.

"That sour taste in our mouth is a big motivational factor," outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. "Not just the way it ended but the way the season ended. It was so exciting and so fun. That's the motivation, to get that feeling back."

Everyone had their eyes on the Twins starters this spring. Free-agent righthanders Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson are coming off multiple poor seasons. And the search party was out for righthander Carlos Silva's sinking fastball.

Ortiz and Ponson have pitched well enough for the Twins to believe they will contribute. Silva's spring was terrible until his final outing, when the elusive sinker reappeared, raising the Twins' hopes.

Last spring, the Twins broke camp with Santana, Brad Radke, Silva, Kyle Lohse and Scott Baker as starters. The Twins leave this spring thinking Ortiz, Ponson and Boof Bonser could be, as a group, an improvement over Radke, Lohse and Baker. And waiting in the wings at Class AAA Rochester are righthanders Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey and lefthander Glen Perkins.

Last season the Twins managed to win after losing star lefthander Francisco Liriano to injury. And the Twins feel they will be all right without him again this season because they are a talented, experienced team that's hungry and knows how to win.

Will it be enough to win a division that looks to be the best in baseball, one that includes the past two American League champions (Detroit and Chicago), plus an improved Cleveland team?

Before Saturday's game Hunter was threatening to fine any hitter who took a pitch. He was in a hurry for Opening Day.

"They forget," Hunter said, "who won the division last year."

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