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Money was not an issue for Joe Nathan. The contract offer that the Twins made to their closer during spring training was certainly fair in his mind, but Nathan also knew he could get a similar deal, and possibly a more lucrative one, by playing out the season and becoming a free agent. The organization that acquired him from the Giants and turned him into one of the game’s best closers-his 4.398 WXRL leads the American League-had traded left-hander Johan Santana to the Mets during the offseason and then lost Gold Glove center fielder Torii Hunter to the Angels as a free agent. As a result, while Nathan’s heart was with the Twins, he wanted to make sure they would still be competitive.

“Once we got to spring training and started playing games, I could see that we were going to be fine,” Nathan said. “I knew coming into spring training that we were going to be able to pitch and play really good defense, because that’s always a given with the Twins. My biggest question was if we were going to score runs. I felt if we could score some runs, then we definitely would have a good club again. Once I saw everyone in action for a few weeks, I knew we would be in position to win. That gave me the confidence to sign back.”

On March 24, Nathan agreed to a four-year, $47 million deal that keeps him in Minnesota through the 2011 season, and his faith has been rewarded, with the Twins now in the thick of an AL Central race that is not turning out the way many people expected. The Twins and White Sox were generally picked to finish third or fourth, while the Tigers and the defending champion Indians were supposed to be battling for the division title. Things have turned out much differently however, with the White Sox leading the Twins by a half game while the Tigers remain on the periphery at 7½ back. Meanwhile, the Indians are 13 games out and in a distant last place.

That may be a shock to many, but not to the Twins, who are 55-42 and also only one game behind the Red Sox in the AL wild-card standings. “We may not have the same kind of experience we’ve had in other years, but I don’t think anyone can deny that we have a talented club,” catcher Joe Mauer said. “We’ve never been a club to make any excuses. There have been a lot of years when people haven’t expected much of us and we like that underdog role. If people want to underestimate us, that doesn’t bother us. We just go out and play the games.”

The Twins had six straight winning seasons from 2001-06 until finishing 79-83 a year ago. Going to the playoffs four times in a five-year span from ’02 through ’05 has created an internal expectation of winning, regardless of last season’s disappointing finish, and it’s that expectation that has helped the Twins remain competitive this season despite the losses of Santana and Hunter. “Winning in the past definitely helps,” Nathan said. “We have guys who have been around winning for a number of years and expect to win. Even the guys who have not been around for very long can sense there has been a taste of winning here. Having that kind of attitude breeds confidence. We’ve gone through some tough stretches this season but have been able to bounce back. It shows character, and that we are a team that is mentally tough and able to survive the tough times.”

The Twins appeared ready to fade out of the race when they were 32-35 on June 12, but they’ve gone 23-7 since then. “It has not been the straightest path,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We went around the woods and through the trees and over bumps and holes but we’ve got to where we’ve competed doggone well with a young team, young players, and young pitchers. We’ve given the second-guessers a lot of opportunities, and that’s always good.”

It remains to be seen whether the Twins can fool the second-guessers all the way to the postseason. They have a very young team with no regulars over the age of 27, and Livan Hernandez (listed as 33) is the only starting pitcher over 27.
The Twins’ offense has been led by Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau, both with .315 EqAs, and is sixth-best in the major leagues, averaging 4.9 runs a game. However, they’re also giving up 4.7 runs a game (18th in the majors) but are a disappointing 26th in defensive efficiency (.685). Furthermore, their Pythagorean over/under of +3.8 wins suggests that the Twins have outplayed expectations to this point.

While the numbers may not suggest a playoff team, don’t tell that to the Twins.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be there the rest of the way,” Morneau said. “The one thing we’ve always done is play the game the right way. If you do that, you always have a chance.”

The Chicago Cubs had eight players in uniform for the All-Star Game this past Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. That was a club record, and the most for any National League team since the Pirates had eight in 1960. While Cubs manager Lou Piniella was also there as a coach on National League manager Clint Hurdle‘s staff, the Chicago players wished that there had been one other person who had been honored. “Jim Hendry is an All-Star, too,” third baseman Aramis Ramirez said.

The All-Star rosters have no designation for general manager, but Cubs ace pitcher Carlos Zambrano also thought that Hendry should have been there, in recognition for his building a club that has the National League’s best record at 57-40, and leads the NL Central by two games over the Cardinals and three over the Brewers. “I have one word for Jim Hendry-good job,” Zambrano said.

Hendry, a former high school baseball coach, is one of the most universally liked GMs in the game. He inspires great loyalty among his staff, and his down-to-earth nature is part of the reason why the Cubs have been able to both attract free agents, and re-sign their own stars before they hit the open market. As far as work ethic, Hendry is so committed to his job that he finalized a four-year, $40 million contract with free agent left-hander Ted Lilly during the 2006 winter meetings in Orlando while en route to a local hospital after suffering a heart attack.

Zambrano has known Hendry since he first signed a professional contract when he was a 16-year-old and Hendry was the Cubs’ farm and scouting director. “He is a very dedicated man,” Zambrano said. “When I was young and I did something wrong, I knew he would talk to me. He would take me into an office and talk to me. He would listen to me and he would talk. He was a very straight guy.”

Another pitcher who has known Hendry since he was a teenager in the farm system, and who also appreciates the GM’s work, is closer Kerry Wood. “The team we have reflects Jim and the front office,” Wood said. “They don’t just go get the best players, but they get the right players, players who will help you win. They know players and they know how to deal with players. In the 13 years I’ve known Jim, there hasn’t been one time he has told me he was going to do something and not followed up. You respect somebody like that.”

Why have the Cardinals been one of the biggest surprises in the major leagues during a season in which most predicted them to finish in the bottom half of the NL Central? “Because we wanted to prove all the so-called experts weren’t really geniuses,” first baseman Albert Pujols said with a smile.

Pujols, speaking during the All-Star festivities this past week, then turned more serious in explaining how the Cardinals have compiled a 56-43 record and lead the NL wild-card race by one game over the Brewers. “We’re a young ballclub that has a lot of energy,” Pujols said.

To illustrate that remark, Pujols pointed to the Cardinals’ 11-6 win over the Pirates at Pittsburgh last Sunday, which came after they had blown a 10-4 lead in the eighth inning the previous night, losing 12-11 in 10 innings despite collecting 23 hits. That was the most hits the Cardinals have ever had in a losing cause. “The way we lost that game and bounced back was amazing,” Pujols said. “Not too many teams can have that attitude where they can bounce back after a tough loss at night, then come back and win a day game the next day. We believe we can match up with any ballclub. Other clubs have more talent and bigger names, but when the umpire says ‘play ball,’ we feel everybody is equal. Everybody has a round ball and a round bat, and it’s the team who makes the most plays who wins and we’ve been making plays.”

Pujols then paused and smiled. “It reminds me a lot of 2006, and we know how that year turned out.”

The Cardinals won their first title in 24 years that season, after knocking off the Padres and Mets in the NL playoffs, and then upsetting the Tigers in the World Series. While owner Bill DeWitt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the Cardinals could add another $2 million in payroll for the remainder of this season, he agrees with GM John Mozeliak that trading for a starting pitcher in order to counter the acquisitions made by the Brewers (CC Sabathia) and the Cubs (Rich Harden) is not necessary. “What we don’t want to do is something we regret later,” DeWitt said. “Clubs in the past have panicked and given up a lot and gotten back a little. We don’t want to be in that position.”

Pitching coach Dave Duncan isn’t so sure that the Cardinals need to upgrade the rotation, as their 13.3 SNVLAR is tied for the NL lead with, ironically, the Cubs and Brewers. “The only reason you wouldn’t think it could continue is if these guys were doing something more than they’re capable of doing,” Duncan said of his rotation’s performance. “I don’t see any one of the guys who have been in the rotation doing something extra special.”

Manny being Manny has caused equal parts humor and disdain in the eight seasons since left fielder Manny Ramirez signed an eight-year, $160 million contract with the Red Sox. However, things have gotten rather ugly lately with the enigmatic slugger.

First, there was the incident in the visitors’ clubhouse at Minute Maid Park in Houston on June 28, when he shoved 64-year-old Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick to the floor during a dispute over the availability of tickets for that night’s game. Then on Friday on Boston’s WEEI-AM came the allegations by former local sports television anchor Bob Lobel that club officials reportedly suspected that Ramirez intentionally struck out in a pinch-hitting appearance against the Yankees on July 6, in which he took three straight called strikes from closer Mariano Rivera. Lobel claimed that there were suspicions Ramirez acted with intent after having reportedly been fined $100,000 by the Red Sox for the incident with McCormick.

The Red Sox did not suspend or publicly censure Ramirez for violence against a club employee, but the general speculation is that he was only fined $10,000.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona was incredulous when told of the report that Ramirez had been suspected of striking out on purpose. “Where’d he come up with that?” Francona asked.

Red Sox owner John Henry said in an e-mail to the Boston Globe that, “It’s ridiculous and incendiary for anyone to suggest that Manny would purposefully make an out in any game.”

Ramirez declined to talk to reporters, but his teammates said they had no reason to suspect that he tanked against Rivera. “I don’t think we thought that,” third baseman Mike Lowell said. “I’ve seen him have other at-bats like that where he’ll strike out without swinging at any of them. It’s a fine line when you start getting into what people are feeling up there. If guys on the team thought he threw an at-bat in that situation, he’d have been called on it. Some guys won’t swing at a cutter unless it’s down the middle.”

NL Rumors and Rumblings: While the Marlins were rebuffed in their attempts to trade for Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez this past week, look for them to try again if Detroit falls out of contention before the end of the month. … The Marlins recalled right-handed reliever Jesus Delgado from Double-A Carolina this past week with the idea of showcasing him for a potential trade. … The Cubs and Cardinals are concentrating on adding relievers in the trade market, with St. Louis zeroing in on a pair of left-handers-the RockiesBrian Fuentes and the RoyalsRon Mahay. … Astros manager Cecil Cooper could be gone if Houston has a poor final two months. … The Braves would consider parting with left-handed reliever Will Ohman if they feel they are out of contention. … The Padres will put catcher Josh Bard on the trading block as soon as he is activated from the disabled list, a move likely to happen sometime this week.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Athletics are listening to offers on right-hander Justin Duchscherer despite already having traded Harden and fellow starter Joe Blanton this month. … The Mariners are hopeful of having left-hander Erik Bedard return from the disabled list in time for him to make at least one showcase start before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline. … The Royals now seem more willing to part with right-hander Gil Meche than they have in the past. … The Orioles would prefer not to trade closer George Sherrill unless they were overwhelmed by an offer, but they may deal Jamie Walker, another left-handed reliever. … The Tigers would include right-handed reliever Fernando Rodney in a trade for a starting pitcher. … The Red Sox could recall right-hander Justin Masterson by the end of the week-he’s been making the conversion from starter to reliever at Triple-A Pawtucket.

Some interesting facts as the 15th week of the regular season winds down:

  • The Rockies were 39-57 at the All-Star break, the third fewest wins ever at the break by a club that had been in the World Series the previous season, behind the 1998 Marlins (32-55) and 1979 Dodgers (36-57).
  • Brewers left-hander CC Sabathia is the first pitcher to hit a home run in both leagues in the same season since Earl Wilson connected in 1970 for the Tigers off the Indians’ Steve Dunning, and for the Padres off the Braves’ Phil Niekro.

  • Phillies left-hander Jamie Moyer has won each of his first 10 starts against the Marlins, the longest streak to open a career against an opponent since Pedro Martinez won 12 starts in a row for the Red Sox against the Mariners from 1998-2004.
  • The Indians have won 13 straight home games against the Rays, the longest such current streak in the major leagues.
  • Dodgers shortstop Nomar Garciaparra hit two home runs on Friday night against the Diamondbacks for his first multi-homer game since August 4, 2002, when he went deep twice for the Red Sox against the RangersAaron Myette.
  • The Rays’ starting pitchers have a 3.90 ERA this season after posting a 5.20 mark last season, and that improvement by 1.30 is the top improvement in the major leagues this year. The Cardinals have the second-best improvement, having sliced 0.83 off their ERA from 5.04 to 4.21, and the Athletics are third with an 0.81 improvement from 4.29 to 3.48.
  • There are five major league teams who have yet to lose a game this season when leading after eight innings: the Rays (50-0), Twins (48-0), Yankees (45-0), Phillies (43-0), and Giants (34-0).
  • Mets shortstop Jose Reyes became the first player in major league history to have at least 20 doubles (23), 10 triples (10), 10 home runs (10), and 30 stolen bases (32) before the All-Star break.
  • The Mets’ 10-game winning streak ended Friday night with a loss to the Reds, but tied the Twins (June 17-27) for the longest in the major leagues this season, and was one short of the club record. The Mets have won 11 in a row four times-May 28-June 10, 1969; May 12-21, 1972; April 18-30, 1986; and June 17-29, 1990.
  • The Angels are only the second team since 1900 to win a game in which they allowed 20 hits (11-10 over the Rangers in 10 innings on July 10) and lose a game in which they held an opponent hitless (1-0 to the Dodgers on June 28) in the same season. The 1992 Red Sox did so on consecutive days, beating the Indians 7-5 in 19 innings on April 11 as Mike Gardiner beat Eric Bell, then losing 2-1 to Cleveland the next day as Charles Nagy beat Matt Young, who walked seven batters in eight hitless innings.
  • Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew was named the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game after hitting a game-tying two-run home run in the seventh inning of the contest. Ironically, Drew has never hit a regular-season home run in 62 career at-bats at Yankee Stadium. That’s the most at-bats at Yankee Stadium without a home run by any active left-handed batter.

Three series to watch, with rankings according to Jay Jaffe‘s Prospectus Hit List:

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