Twins showing their teeth

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

MINNEAPOLIS – Some more free stuff came in the mail Saturday morning, and, per usual, it was gone in about 10 seconds. Long before Ozzie Guillen called them a bunch of piranhas, the Minnesota Twins were scavengers of a different kind.

“If you ever want to see a group of guys dive for something, throw something free out on this table,” Twins catcher Mike Redmond said. “We had golf hats, I think Titleist. There were about 10 of them. Guys were literally diving on the table for a hat. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You make $300,000 a year, minimum, and you’re going crazy for a free hat.’ Doesn’t change them. They still do it.”

What arrived Saturday, though – this was different than the box of CDs from the day before, the one that was trucked by Jason Bartlett, who helped himself to some old R. Kelly and new OutKast, and Jason Tyner, who grabbed Christina Aguilera and Usher, who said they were for his wife, only for Nick Punto to check him quickly: “Don’t lie. They’re for him.”

Here were about a half-dozen piranhas, real ones – real teeth, real scales and, for everyone’s safety, real dead. A fan in Venezuela read about the nickname Guillen, the Chicago White Sox manager, had bestowed on Punto, Bartlett, Tyner and second baseman Luis Castillo, found a taxidermist who handled fish and sent the finished product, mounted on wooden planks with VENEZUELA carved into the side, to the Twins. The team’s three Venezuelan players, Johan Santana, Carlos Silva and Luis Rodriguez, signed the fish, and Punto, though generally not a connoisseur of freebies, made sure to grab one.

“Look at that,” Punto said. “Those teeth. They have them in their throat. How much would it hurt to get attacked by one of these?”

Well, he could ask the rest of the American League.

Since June 1, the Twins have nibbled and nipped their way to a 59-30 record, the best in baseball, and find themselves in the wild-card lead and two games back of the AL Central lead after taking three of four from the first-place Detroit Tigers this weekend, capped by Johan Santana's dominating performance here Sunday. Santana, the favorite for the AL Cy Young Award, struck out 11 and allowed two hits in 6 1/3 innings for his 18th victory.

As important as Santana has been, and as integral as the heart of the order – Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau – has been, the Twins believe they are here, alive in September, because of the piranhas. If the stars are the border pieces of a puzzle, the ones that everyone desperately wants to find, the piranhas are the middle pieces, every bit as important if the puzzle is to be finished.

The piranhas are not great players, and they know that. They are, however, great players for the Twins.

“They run, and they run, and they don’t stop running,” Tigers shortstop Carlos Guillen said. “You want to keep up with them, and you can’t. They play with heart, with passion. They’re hungry.”

And the amazing part? They’re not even supposed to be here.

If it were up to Nick Punto, this whole piranhas thing would go away. In his first two seasons with the Twins, he played some second base, some shortstop, a little bit of third and outfield, standard utility fare. Which is to say, he was as covert as Valerie Plame.

“I’d rather just lay low and stay under the radar,” Punto said. “I don’t like to think of us as piranhas. We’re just out here playing baseball. That’s Ozzie’s thing.

“Ozzie opened his mouth, and all of a sudden everybody wanted to talk to us.”

For two months, they had perfected the anonymity routine. Let Mauer and his .400-flirting, Miss USA-dating, All-American self sponge most of the credit and allow Morneau and Santana, the team’s real MVP candidates, to mop up the rest.

Only ineffectiveness and injuries forced them into the lineup in the first place. Third baseman Tony Batista stunk for 50 games, and on June 14, the Twins designated him for assignment, giving Punto a shot at the everyday job. A day earlier, Bartlett had been summoned from Triple-A to replace the struggling Juan Castro, and about a month later, Tyner came from the minors to spell the injured Rondell White.

That month, Punto hit .374, Tyner .328, Bartlett .325 and Castillo, a three-time All-Star and the only piranha with an iota of recognition, .294. The Twins went 18-8.

“They got us back into this thing,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “With those guys slapping the ball and running around and driving people crazy, along with the big guys in the middle all swinging and knocking the crap out of the ball. If you want to call them piranhas, fine. We just call it a little more athleticism and speed, and when they got on the base and other guys knock them in, that’s the way you write it up.”

Not even Roger Angell, on the other hand, could have penned a more apropos description of the Twins than Guillen’s. It even sounded cool, with his pronunciation – pee-RAHN-ya – including the Brazilian accent, like with Ronaldinho. Guillen uttered the phrase Aug. 19 during a series in which the Twins took two of three from the White Sox, and it grew like kudzu.

“If another manager can’t stand you,” Bartlett said, “you know you’re doing something right.”

The piranhas were always more about intangibles than production, measured by their immeasurables. In a game still decided often by the home run, the Twins in August allotted 392 of their 956 at-bats to Punto, Bartlett, Tyner and Castillo and were rewarded with a single homer, belonging to Punto. Though Bartlett and Castillo each hit .351 and Punto solidified himself in the No. 2 hole, Tyner turned into an on-base liability and, with White’s return, found himself on the bench.

Their presence alone reinforces the reality that the Twins must get by looking for market inefficiencies. Bartlett makes near the major-league minimum of $327,000, Tyner not much more, Punto around $700,000 and Castillo $5 million, in all a fraction of the Twins’ $63 million payroll. Though Minnesotans for years have begged billionaire owner Carl Pohlad to increase the payroll, the Twins rank last in Major League Baseball with $114 million in revenue, according to Forbes’ annual survey, meaning their best hitters are almost always developed in their minor-league system and have yet to hit free agency. Speed and defense, on the other hand, tend to come cheap; tenacity doesn’t have a price and, in many cases, can be a product of the environment.

“We aren’t going to be in that market for big home run hitters,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “What we do stress is defense. Punto can play defense, Bartlett can play defense. You’re willing to sacrifice some of that offense if you have the defense.

“If things aren’t working, which they weren’t for us, you shift guys around. Gardy did that for us, and Punto responded. Those players are very valuable to us, because even though they may not hit it over the fence, their fielding, range, speed, steals, going from first to third, scoring on a gapper – those guys do that stuff. The longer you put them out there, the more they respond.”

It’s not just the playing time. The energy amps Punto. He dives habitually. He revels in a dirty uniform, even though the tiniest speck of dirt on his shoes before the game is a no-no for clubhouse attendants. He feeds off the Twins’ duality, which is laid back pre-game – the most daring thing they do is play extreme cribbage, a game closer Joe Nathan invented – and agog in-game.

“Anybody with a big market would be crazy not to get guys who hit 40 home runs,” Punto said. “It would look silly if the New York Yankees ran a lineup out there like ours.”

“But you know what? Runs are runs, and I love the way we play the game. I wouldn’t want to play it any other way.”

They weren’t supposed to be piranhas, you know.

“I hate it,” said Torii Hunter, the Twins’ center fielder and conscience. “We are hyenas. That was Kirby Puckett’s thing. He made T-shirts, and on the back, they said, ‘Always taking advantage of the weak link.’

“Piranhas are going to get eaten by the hyenas.”

We’ll leave the food-chain stuff to Jack Hanna, but Twins fans have latched onto the piranhas. The team printed up piranha T-shirts that sell for $24 at the game – gotta drive that revenue, remember – though Tyner, playing barterer with his gratis copy, said, “I’ll sell mine for $10.”

Surely he could get ten times that on eBay, particularly if the Twins can stretch their advantage in the playoff race. Before the White Sox’s emergence last season and the Tigers’ resurgence this year, the Twins had dominated a weak AL Central for three years and burned out during playoffs, twice in the first round. This team, when Francisco Liriano is healthy, is better than all of them – three big bats in the lineup, two aces in the rotation, one of the best closers in baseball, a manager who matches wits with the best, a worthwhile bench and bullpen and, oh, yeah, some hungry animals in the lineup.

“Twenty years from now,” Punto said, “no one will remember about the piranhas.”

Punto’s thought marinated in the air for a few seconds. He had stuck the stuffed piranha in his locker, and at the angle it rested, the fish’s right eye was staring directly at Punto, as if he had committed some kind of affront.

“Probably not,” Redmond said, and he paused, too, but for effect.

“Unless we keep winning.”

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