On Target: Confident Twins expecting to contend

The Minnesota Twins were nearing the inauguration of Target

Field, and soft-spoken slugger Jason Kubel had an eyebrow-raising

message for power-hitting teammates Justin Morneau and Michael

Cuddyer.

Kubel, it turns out, was determined to hit the first home run in

the new ballpark.

“I told Morny and Cuddy before the game that you guys better do

it right away before I get up there,” Kubel said after homering in

the seventh inning of Minnesota’s home-opening win over Boston on

Monday. “I gave them a couple of at-bats. Now I’m thrilled that I

did it. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Kubel is polite and about as quiet as any player the Twins have,

with a beard and a half-smiling, almost sleepy expression.

His brash prediction, even in fun around friends, sounded

decidedly un-Kubel-like. Even though he’s coming off a career

season with 28 homers, 103 RBIs and a .300 batting average, the

27-year-old Kubel is easily overlooked in a Twins lineup

highlighted by former AL MVPs Joe Mauer and Morneau.

Cuddyer hit 32 home runs himself last year, an outgoing,

polished leader in the clubhouse who is the longest-tenured player

on the team. Even Jim Thome, who will spell Kubel as the designated

hitter and give him an opportunity to play left field in place of

Delmon Young, has a much higher profile as a bench player with 565

career home runs.

That’s all right with Kubel, who was one of the organization’s

top prospects before a severe knee injury knocked him out for the

2005 season and delayed his progress toward establishing his

presence in the middle of Minnesota’s lineup.

Even he can’t fully describe what finally clicked for him last

year.

“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” Kubel said. “Everything

just worked out. If I knew, that would make it easy every

year.”

Whatever the formula, Kubel has found his confidence. And so

have the Twins.

They’re like kids on Christmas as they get settled in their new

home, but this is a deep and talented roster with high hopes and

expectations.

After pitching six smooth innings for the first victory at

Target Field, right-hander Carl Pavano was asked about the quality

of this Twins team.

“I think we’re great,” Pavano said, unflinching.

Even Mauer, the lowest of low-key personalities, seemed more

exuberant than usual after the 5-2 victory over the Red Sox that

lifted their record to 6-2 – tied for best in the American League.

The Twins had Tuesday off, their first break in the schedule since

opening day.

“I tried to stay on an even keel and remind myself we had a

ballgame to play,” Mauer said as he reflected on the festivities

surrounding Minnesota’s formal return to the outdoors after 28

years in the Metrodome.

He knows this year’s team, the most expensive in franchise

history with a payroll over $97 million, has the potential to be

special even without the new ballpark sparkle.

The early work by new closer Jon Rauch is the most encouraging

development for the Twins, who were forced to replace four-time

All-Star Joe Nathan when he hurt his elbow and needed season-ending

surgery in March. Rauch has converted all five of his save

attempts, leading the major leagues.

“I’ve always been confident I can do the job. I think every guy

down in that bullpen is confident they can do the job,” Rauch

said. “I just happen to be the one they named to do it.”

AP Baseball Writer Jon Krawczynski contributed to this

report.