Front-row seats at their own wake

Chicago White SoxSportsBasketballJose ValentinCorey KoskiePaul KonerkoTorii Hunter

Ron Gardenhire felt apprehensive when he first walked into the Twins' clubhouse Monday afternoon. He winced as he saw all of the protective plastic draped over his players' lockers in anticipation of a Central Division-clinching victory over the White Sox.

"I don't really like that stuff. We haven't won anything yet," the Minnesota manager said before the game. "We have to win one, then they can do whatever they want with the plastic."

A few hours later, his players had their way, trumping the Sox 8-2 at U.S. Cellular Field to set off an in-your-face celebration that forced their closest pursuers to watch along with 21,991 fans.

"It has been a fun ride," said Twins center fielder Torii Hunter, who hit a two-run homer in the four-run first inning. "And we've still got some riding to do. This second half has been a lot of fun."

The Twins have gone 41-22 since the All-Star break to erase a half-game lead by the White Sox. The Twins are 42-25 against the Central Division; the Sox are 31-32 in the division.

"I tip my hat and congratulate Ron Gardenhire," Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "They go out and show people they can play. I guarantee you I see myself winning here. Today made me much stronger. That's why I stayed there (in the dugout) and watched the celebration."

The AL Central title is the third straight for the Twins, who have won 11 of their last 13 games and 16 of their last 20.

"It's different from the last couple of years, because usually when we clinch, we have to watch on TV and wait for somebody to lose," Hunter said. "Then we jump up and down. But I never [celebrated] on the field before."

The Twins jumped on Sox starter Mark Buehrle in the first inning. Hunter lofted his 21st homer of the season to the opposite field with Shannon Stewart on base.

Then Corey Koskie blasted his 24th homer of the season deep into the left-field stands with Michael Cuddyer aboard.

"In the first inning, it seemed like the [9-m.p.h.] wind took a couple of balls out on me," said Buehrle (14-10), who allowed a career-high four homers. "You have to respect a team that puts a butt-whooping like they do to us."

The Sox finally got to Twins starter Carlos Silva in the seventh inning when Jose Valentin hit a two-run homer into the right-field bullpen to make it 6-2. It was Valentin's 27th of the season and his first homer since Aug. 9 against Cleveland.

"I will admit, it stinks watching [the celebration]," Sox designated hitter Paul Konerko said. "It's not like I am down on anybody in here or anything like that. But it looks like a lot of fun. I'm jealous of them. I want to do that."

Silva (13-8) allowed two runs on seven hits over seven innings. Reliever Juan Rincon blanked the Sox the final two innings.

Hunter has a season-high 11-game hitting streak, going 15-for-40 (.375) with three doubles, two homers and six RBIs.

"I remember when [the Sox] clinched in 2000 at our place," Hunter said. "Most of the guys don't remember it, but I remember sitting on the bench and that pushed me."

Buehrle was charged with seven runs on 10 hits in eight-plus innings. The Twins have won 11 of their last 12 decisions against left-handed starters.

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