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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Twins arrived at Target Field on Tuesday night with a magic number of two, a day game on Wednesday and their AL Central rivals from Chicago playing late into the night on the West Coast.
Even if they beat the Indians, the Twins said, they wouldn't be sticking around to see how the White Sox fared. They all planned to return to their homes and check the scores. If the Sox lost and the Twins clinched the division, so be it. There would be time to celebrate another day.
Manager Ron Gardenhire said before the game that he planned to be sitting comfortably at home long before the White Sox-Athletics game was over, relaxing and thinking about the series finale against the Indians.
Then, after a stirring four-run rally in the eighth inning to beat the Indians 6-4, the Twins looked at the scoreboard and saw the slumping White Sox down 5-2 in the seventh inning.
They simply couldn't resist.
With a few hundred fans still in the Target Field stands, the Twins watched the Athletics finish off the White Sox 7-2, giving Minnesota its sixth division title in nine seasons and touching off one heck of a party in the brand new stadium.
"Those guys aren't going to let me go home," said Gardenhire, who captured career victory No. 800. "I had a posse in here telling me we're staying."
In the end, there were just too many reasons to stay and enjoy it.
A team that entered spring training as the favorites to repeat as division champions lost All-Star closer Joe Nathan to Tommy John surgery and has played the last two months without All-Star first baseman Justin Morneau.
A bunch of new faces — from offseason additions like Jim Thome and J.J. Hardy to in-season pickups Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes — meshed seamlessly into an already tight-knit clubhouse.
After a mediocre 46-42 first half of the season, and despite less serious injuries to Jason Kubel, Orlando Hudson, Hardy, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey, the Twins somehow still found a way to go 45-18 and turn a tight division race into a runaway.
That's why the champagne geysers gushed on Tuesday night and the pristine clubhouse carpet was soaked with beer.
Second baseman Hudson donned oversized goggles to navigate the champagne geysers and exchanged bear hugs with Joe Mauer, while Thome, a 40-year-old kid on this night, doused the entire room with garbage cans of water as techno music rattled the walls.
"It never gets old, that's for sure," said Michael Cuddyer, who moved from right field to first base to take over for Morneau. "It feels really special. We're going to enjoy it right now, but we still have some stuff we want to do. And it's nice to have 11 days to figure out how we're going to do it."
It's a new feeling for the Twins, who have played in a one-game playoff in each of the last two seasons to determine the AL Central winner. They lost to the White Sox in 2008 and beat the Tigers last year in Game 163 to squeak into the postseason.
"Considering we've been to Game 163 the last couple years, I think this might work out a little bit better for us," Gardenhire said. "At least I know we'll be rested for the first game, and that's a nice thought that we can get some people healthy and kind of set things up a little bit easier than we have the last couple years."
Mauer, the reigning AL MVP, has a sore left knee that will keep him out for a few days but is not expected to linger into the playoffs. Hardy was a late scratch on Tuesday night because of a migraine headache and has been bothered by a sore wrist, and Scott Baker returned to the mound with five strong innings after missing almost three weeks with tendinitis in his right elbow.
"I think hopefully this will give us an opportunity to think about the postseason and get ourselves mentally and physically ready," center fielder Denard Span said.
But the Twins (91-60) aren't just planning on kicking back and coasting into October. They are one game behind the New York Yankees (92-59) for the best record in baseball, which would bring with it homefield advantage throughout the AL playoffs.
The Twins' 51 home wins are tied for the second most in baseball behind the Phillies and Braves, who both have 52.
"It's just the first stepping stone, the milestone we've been trying to reach," Hudson said. "We still have a lot of baseball left."