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Same old finish for Minnesota Twins

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The cute, cuddly, underdog Minnesota Twins are gone.

They left that image back in the shabby old Metrodome. The Twins have a beautiful new ballpark across town and a $100 million payroll that seemed unfathomable just a few seasons ago.

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Now, they find themselves in the upper third of baseball's spenders and will have to start sharing their revenue with cash-strapped teams next season as opposed to taking in money from the Yankees, Red Sox and other financial heavyweights as they've done for so many years.

Despite all the trimmings from the first year at Target Field -- the sold-out crowds, the big-name free agents, the midseason trades -- the Twins find themselves in the very same place they've been three times before, heading home early thanks to the Yankees.

"It was an unbelievable, magical year," Michael Cuddyer said, two days after the Twins were swept out of the AL playoffs by the Yankees for the second year in a row. "With Target Field, 40,000 people every single day, winning the division, the second half that we had after the All Star break, the way we played, it was definitely a successful year.

"Obviously, our ultimate goal wasn't reached. Unfortunately, that's what people remember you by, especially when you've been in this situation as many times as we have."

The Twins slink into the offseason with a 12-game playoff losing streak on their shoulders. They've been swept out of the division series in each of their last three appearances and have lost nine straight games to the Yankees in October.

"Five days ago we were going to win a World Series and now we're packing up our lockers," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "It just kind of happened really quick."

It was the fourth time in eight years that Minnesota was eliminated from the postseason by the Yankees, who have won nine consecutive playoff games against the Twins.

Minnesota is 2-12 in the postseason and 18-57 overall against New York since manager Ron Gardenhire took over.

"They play with extreme confidence against us. That's it," Hardy said. "There's nothing we can do to make them feel pressure. If we score runs, they feel like they're going to score more runs. It's just one of those things that something's got to change."

In previous seasons when the Twins would lose to the mighty Yankees, the home crowd would shrug its collective shoulders.

The small-market Twins weren't expected to compete against the biggest, baddest team in the game. How could this scrappy bunch measure up with such a payroll discrepancy?

The gap is still wide, with the Yankees spending more than $200 million this year. But it's not as wide as it used to be, and the hometown fans are starting to get restless.

They're tired of making excuses for their team. Tired of watching them get overwhelmed in the heat of the moment and tired of hearing Frank Sinatra sing "New York, New York" after another pinstriped win in October.

So the Twins head into this offseason with plenty of money to spend, and even higher expectations. They need to figure out a way to do something they haven't done yet -- beat those Yankees.

"I think we obviously have the core in here that can get us to the playoffs," center fielder Denard Span said. "It's proven the last two or three years we can get to this point. I just think now it's up to us getting past this point and trying to figure out how we can get beyond just getting to the playoffs."

There will be a lot of decisions to make.

Joe Mauer, who went 3 for 12 with three singles and no RBIs in the ALDS, will start the first season of an eight-year, $184 million contract extension he signed in March. The team also has 11 free agents, including trusted pitchers Carl Pavano, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier and slugger Jim Thome, who said he wants to return.

Cuddyer said he will have arthroscopic surgery on his right knee soon and Mauer also could need treatment on a sore knee that bothered him the last month of the season. The team also hopes to get All-Star first baseman Justin Morneau back after he missed the final three months with a concussion and closer Joe Nathan back from Tommy John surgery.

Just getting healthy will be a big help, but the team could also use a proven power pitcher in the rotation and a big right-handed bat to offset all the lefties in the lineup.

"You never know what the team's going to look like," Cuddyer said. "Obviously, people that are in this clubhouse and the name tags you see, some of them won't be here and there will be different ones. That's the nature of the business. That's the nature of this sport. As players, you understand that. You say your goodbyes and you hope everybody's back."

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