Can baseball's improved Twins fulfill manager's expectations?

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While rumors swirl like sand in the desert around the possible sale of the American League's Minnesota franchise to outside interests, Twins Manager Billy Gardner keeps his focus strictly on the playing field, where he hopes his improved team can win 20 more games than it did a year ago.

Asked if he didn't think 90 victories in 1984 was stretching reality just a little, Gardner replied: ''Baseball is a long season in which injuries often play a key role. Sure I've got problems as a manager, but so does everybody else , no matter how good their team might look on paper.

''We've always played well over the second half of the season,'' Billy continued. ''We've had some disappointments so far. For example, we still don't know when Ken Schrom, who won 15 games for us last year but hasn't pitched at all in 1984 because of a shoulder problem, can begin throwing again. And we gave away some games in April with mental mistakes that we never should have made. But over a long season, you have to believe that those things will even out.''

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If so, Gardner's expectations might not be unrealistic after all, since despite these problems the Twins are off to a much better start than they had last year. With approximately one-fourth of the season over, in fact, they are still right around the .500 mark and in the thick of a five-team scramble for the AL West lead.

During the winter, Minnesota's biggest gamble was trading outfielder Gary Ward (who averaged 34 doubles, 24 homers, and 90 RBIs over the past two years) to Texas for pitchers Mike Smithson and John Butcher. Reportedly not everyone in Minnesota's front office was in favor of that deal.

But with Ward struggling this spring, the trade seems to be tilting in Minnesota's direction. Adding those two right-handers to the rotation should go a long way toward reducing the team's worst-in-the-majors 1983 earned-run average of 4.66.

Minnesota also has one of the game's premier relief pitchers in Ron Davis, who had 30 saves last year (third best in the majors) and is now considered in a class with San Diego's Goose Gossage and Kansas City's sidearming Dan Quisenberry.

However the jury is still out on whether .300 hitter Dave Engle, who made the transition from outfielder to catcher last year, can improve his release and throwing accuracy well enough to play every day. If he can't, the people behind him will probably have to be platooned.

''Whenever you talk pennant, it always comes down eventually to pitching, defense, and the kind of people you can bring in off the bench,'' Gardner said. ''But if we were to get Schrom back in time to start 20 or 25 games for us, assuming he pitched the way he did in 1983, our regular rotation would be as good as a lot of teams that are considered contenders.

''We're going to score a lot of runs,'' Billy added. A couple of years ago teams would sometimes hold out their two best pitchers against us because they figured they could beat us anyway. But they don't do it anymore. Even our seventh, eighth, and ninth hitters can now keep a rally alive.''

The key players in Gardner's power attack are first baseman Kent Hrbek (16 HRs, 84 RBIs last year); infielder-turned-outfielder Gary Gaetti (21 HRs, 78 RBIs); outfielder Tom Brunansky (28 HRs, 82 RBIs); and designated hitter Randy Bush (11 HRs, 56 RBIs).

The Twins have also added a new power-hitting second baseman in Tim Teufel, the International League's MVP in 1983. Although he hasn't hit the long ball consistently yet, he batted .323 with 27 homers and 100 RBIs last year at Toledo. Third base, meanwhile, is in the capable hands of five-year veteran John Castino.

Although shortstop was a Titanic situation at times last year for Minnesota, Gardner thinks he may have found the glove and range he needs in Houston Jimenez , who appeared in 36 games with the Twins in 1983.

While Minnesota was hoping that Jim Eisenreich could make it back from a challenging mental situation to play center field, that position is now rookie Kirby Puckett's to win or lose.

Puckett, a minor leaguer called up from Toledo May 7, almost didn't make it for his first game against California. A mechanical problem grounded his flight for four hours. When Kirby finally did arrive at Los Angeles International, he was still 55 miles from his destination. But Puckett solved his dilemma of getting to Anaheim Stadium by making a cab driver $82 richer.

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