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Twins bank on Pavano

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Carl Pavano called those four injury-riddled, tension-filled seasons in New York a "black period" in his career.

Considering the size of his contract and his complete lack of production, Pavano in pinstripes became one of the biggest free-agent busts in baseball history.

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The right-hander has started to correct that wrong turn this year with a decent performance for Cleveland and Minnesota, finding himself in the playoffs with an opportunity to further frustrate the Yankees -- if he can win Game 3 for the Twins on Sunday.

"I can't ask for much more than that," said Pavano, who was acquired by Minnesota in August. "When I look back on it obviously things could have been a lot different, but it didn't work out that way. But I feel like I am getting back to where I was before all those problems."

Down 2-0 in the best-of-five division series after a devastating 11-inning defeat at Yankee Stadium on Friday, the Twins are in yet another must-win situation after spending the stretch drive in that pressurized mode.

They knew about Pavano's huge struggles to stay healthy and the trouble he had finding friends in the clubhouse during all that time spent on the disabled list. In two months, though, Pavano has had no problem fitting in with the Twins.

"We're just a Minnesota-nice group, and we like the hell out of the guy," manager Ron Gardenhire said, chuckling at the trashing Pavano took in the city tabloids and by the New York fans through the duration of the $39.95 million, four-year deal.

Pavano won only nine games and made just 26 starts in that stretch.

This season, he went 14-12 over 33 starts combined for the Indians and Twins.

"I just know one thing. What he has meant to us and what he has helped us achieve here has been fantastic," said Gardenhire, who had to patch together a rotation this summer with only two starters -- Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn -- who stayed healthy for the entire season.

This young group was lacking a veteran leader, and Pavano helped provide that. After failing to click with catcher Jose Morales the first time he threw to him, Pavano took time to sit with the rookie in the dugout during the next couple of games to discuss strategy.

"Those are the types of things you just can't replace," Gardenhire said.

Blackburn pitched strong into the sixth inning in Game 2, yielding only one run, but he reflected Saturday morning on New York's "mentally exhausting lineup" -- that endless supply of patient, confident, powerful hitters. He expressed faith, however, in Pavano's ability to handle them.

"He's going to know what they like to do," Blackburn said. "He's going to know where they like to hit in certain situations. He's one of those guys who pays attention to every pitch. He's always studying baseball. He's always watching and trying to learn."

Added Blackburn: "He's a great guy to have on our team, and I'd love to see him back next year."

That's the opposite of the way the Yankees felt after last season.

Labeled "American Idle" on the back pages, Pavano had problems with his shoulder, his back, his shoulder again, and then his elbow. During rehab, he broke two ribs in a car accident and hid the injury from the team. Then after starting on opening day in 2007 for the Yankees, he made only one more appearance that year before needing reconstructive surgery on his elbow. He didn't pitch again until seven token starts last August, with the Yankees out of the running.

Pavano was criticized publicly several times, but at this point the Yankees aren't interesting in revisiting the past.

"He wasn't a bad guy," general manager Brian Cashman said. "I didn't feel like he stole our money."

Cashman compared Pavano's revival to that of designated hitter Hideki Matsui, who has come back from knee problems.

"He's healthy and he's producing," Cashman said. "When he's healthy, he can pitch."

Manager Joe Girardi missed most of Pavano's years with the Yankees, but he downplayed the internal dislike -- pinning the frustration solely on his absence. Shortstop and captain Derek Jeter echoed that sentiment.

"They knew he was a good pitcher and they wanted him on the mound," Girardi said. "That was the bottom line."

The Yankees won't have their rabid home crowd to boo Pavano. They must instead put up with the tricky roof and boisterous fans at the Metrodome, needing to win once to avoid going back to the Bronx for an elimination game. It's an intimidating environment, one that the Twins have thrived on for years.

Not so much lately in October. They're on a seven-game postseason losing streak, including two losses each in 2003 and 2004 to the Yankees in the first round, though that's not part of the thought process. Plus, only a handful of current players were on those teams.

"We're just living for the day," Gardenhire said.

The Twins finished the regular season 17-4, including that thrilling tiebreaker game victory over Detroit, and made up a seven-game deficit to the Tigers over the final three weeks.

"Our backs have been against the wall here for a while," said catcher Joe Mauer, who's a bit banged up from playing so much down the stretch. He said there's no question he'll be behind the plate on Sunday.

The Yankees were plenty loose while they took batting practice in the afternoon, laughing and smiling as they worked out at the Metrodome. They're wary, however, of letting up against a Twins team that put 21 runners on base Friday night and has been playing with desperation since early September.

"You don't really want to let them get their foot in the door," Girardi said.

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