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Confident Twins get 1st crack at division champ Indians

By DAVE CAMPBELLMarch 27, 2019
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FILE - In this March 18, 2019, file photo, Minnesota Twins pitcher Jose Berrios works against the Boston Red Sox in the first inning of a spring training baseball game, in Fort Myers, Fla. Cleveland's quest for a fourth straight AL Central title will be immediately challenged, with injuries to infielders Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis and the departure of relievers Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. They're starting the season at Minnesota, too, where the Twins are poised to close the gap. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
1 of 5
FILE - In this March 18, 2019, file photo, Minnesota Twins pitcher Jose Berrios works against the Boston Red Sox in the first inning of a spring training baseball game, in Fort Myers, Fla. Cleveland's quest for a fourth straight AL Central title will be immediately challenged, with injuries to infielders Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis and the departure of relievers Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. They're starting the season at Minnesota, too, where the Twins are poised to close the gap. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — After hiring a new manager and some power-hitting help, the Minnesota Twins have assembled a team for 2019 that, assuming expected progress by several of their young players, they’re confident can close the gap with Cleveland in the AL Central .

The Twins don’t have to wait for a crack at the three-time defending division champions, with a season-opening three-game series starting on Thursday afternoon that will mark rookie skipper Rocco Baldelli’s debut in the dugout. The Indians are short-handed, too, with shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jason Kipnis both out with calf injuries.

“I think I’ll have a good start this year. When I see Cleveland, it’s a good thing,” said Twins left fielder Eddie Rosario, who has a robust .973 OPS in 67 career games against the Indians.

Not all of his teammates, alas, have enjoyed such stellar performance against Cleveland, but there’s clearly an air of embracing the challenge surrounding the Twins this spring. Right-hander Jose Berrios will make his first opening day start, who at age 24 will be the youngest to take the mound in the first game for Minnesota since a 23-year-old Brad Radke in 1996.

Berrios, who made his first All-Star team last season, will be matched against, gulp, Corey Kluber, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner.

“If you want to be the best, you have to play against the best,” Berrios said.

He’s one of the handful of under-28 players the Twins are counting on to continue their development and, thus, form the core of a legitimate contender. Berrios posted a 3.84 ERA with two complete games and 202 strikeouts in 192 1/3 innings, all career bests.

“I know more of myself. I know how to control my pitches. I know more of the hitters,” Berrios said.

With Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber, the Indians have a rotation that’s as stacked as any in the major leagues . Where the Twins can best compare, though, is at the plate after adding Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop for a big boost in home run prowess.

“They’ve got a potentially a really good lineup. We’re going to play them, what, 19 times? So I’m guessing we’ll get a pretty good feel for it really soon,” said Indians manager Terry Francona, for whom Baldelli played with the Boston Red Sox in 2009.

Baldelli will have nine tickets left at will call for visiting family and friends. Beyond that, he said he hasn’t been mulling the magnitude of the moment surrounding his first game as a manager, having been too busy trying to get his players ready.

“It’s a group of relative youth and a group that could turn into anything,” Baldelli said on Wednesday before the team held a workout at Target Field, “and that’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to give them the environment to allow all of their gifts and all of their talents to come to fruition. If that happens, then who knows what we’re looking at? But it’s an exceptionally talented group.”

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