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12/27/10 10:00 AM EST

Twins rise to occasion in first year at Target

MINNEAPOLIS -- Expectations were high for the Twins entering the 2010 season.

With their new outdoor stadium set to open in downtown Minneapolis, a payroll that had jumped more than $30 million and the additions of well-known players such as J.J. Hardy, Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson, the Twins didn't hide their aspirations of securing not only another division title but also making a deep run into the postseason.

But there were challenges to be had throughout the year. It began in Spring Training with the loss of four-time All-Star closer Joe Nathan and it continued into the year when Justin Morneau suffered a season-ending concussion on July 7. A slow start offensively by Joe Mauer over the first half of the season was concerning, as were the nagging injuries that seemed to be bothering the All-Star catcher. And the Twins turned to rookie third baseman Danny Valencia, who had expected to be a temporary callup, when injuries depleted the club's infield.

Yet no matter what roadblock seemed to pop up, the Twins found a way to overcome it. They captured their sixth American League Central title in nine years and became the first team in baseball to clinch a spot in the postseason. The playoffs didn't go exactly as the Twins had hoped, with the club suffering yet another sweep at the hands of the Yankees in the AL Division Series. But the inaugural season at Target Field was still one that Twins fans will never forget.

Year in Review
Looking back at 2010
MLB Year in Review
Game prospering
Final standings
Statistical leaders

There were many storylines that helped shape the Twins' 2010 season, and here are five of the most memorable ones.

5. Veteran leaders make a strong impact

When the Twins lost Morneau to a concussion on July 7, it halted what had perhaps been the first baseman's best start to a season. But the loss of Morneau's bat from the Twins' lineup was lessened slightly thanks to Thome's resurgent season. Despite tallying just 276 at-bats, Thome led the team with 25 home runs. He delivered many of the most memorable moments in the inaugural season at Target Field, including a walk-off home run in the 10th inning of a game against the White Sox. But Thome was far from the only veteran leader to have an impact on the Twins in 2010. Carl Pavano emerged as the steadiest arm in the rotation, and Michael Cuddyer once again proved his value with his versatility, starting at a total of five positions and filling in capably at first base for a prolonged stint for the second straight season.

4. Francisco Liriano's comeback season

The Twins returned Pavano to their starting staff in 2010, but the team still needed another starter to emerge as a top-of-the-rotation guy. Enter Liriano, who seemed to find his velocity and, more importantly, his confidence last offseason while pitching in winter ball in the Dominican Republic. After going 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA in 2009, Liriano got off to a blistering start in '10. He went 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA in April and drew comparisons to himself back in 2006, when he dominated the league as a rookie prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery. He wasn't able to keep up that April pace, but Liriano won a career-high 14 games and provided a glimpse of the left-hander whom the club hopes will lead its rotation for years to come.

3. Injury overload

The Twins never really got a chance to see all of their offseason plans reach fruition in the 2010 season. Nathan went down with his elbow injury before the team left Spring Training, and it was just the start of a multitude of injuries that would plague the team. Mauer spent the season battling his share of various nagging injuries, and the club had to endure a second straight postseason without Morneau. Opening Day starter Scott Baker was sidelined twice by elbow tendinitis, and fellow starter Kevin Slowey also battled elbow issues. Nick Punto, Hardy and Hudson combined to have seven stints on the disabled list. But even while the injuries hampered the Twins, it was manager Ron Gardenhire's ability to guide his team to yet another title in spite of those losses that earned him the 2010 AL Manager of the Year Award.

2. Mauer signs an eight-year, $184 million contract extension

The Twins had long been considered one of the smaller-market teams in baseball. But with a new stadium set to open, the Twins secured a big piece of their future by inking their All-Star catcher and reigning AL MVP to one of the largest contracts in baseball history. It not only kept the hometown kid in the Twin Cities, but it helped the club shed its label being a team that developed talent only to watch it eventually leave. After years of having to say goodbye to their superstars, the Twins showed -- thanks to Target Field and its increased revenue -- they could keep a star like Mauer for the long term. Mauer's decision to stay in Minnesota was not only good for the Twins, it was also good for baseball.

1. Opening of Target Field

For 28 years, the Twins played under the dingy Teflon roof of the Metrodome and shared it for much of that time with two other teams. So there was certainly excitement for the Twins to return to outdoor baseball and finally have a place to call their own. But no one imagined a place quite like Target Field. From the limestone walls to the intimate setting and the club's history being celebrated in every nook of the ballpark, the Twins' new home earned rave reviews throughout baseball. It was a season full of memorable moments, starting on Opening Day with Twins legends Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Tony Oliva gathering together on the mound and ending with the team's first playoff games at the new park.

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Kelly's Corner and follow her on Twitter at kellythesier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.