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Twins bullpen tries to rebuild in front of Nathan

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -- The Minnesota bullpen is still stable in the back with Joe Nathan. The relievers in front of him weren't reliable down the stretch last season, though. It's on them this spring to rebuild that critical bridge to the three...

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -- The Minnesota bullpen is still stable in the back with Joe Nathan.

The relievers in front of him weren't reliable down the stretch last season, though. It's on them this spring to rebuild that critical bridge to the three-time All-Star closer and help keep the Twins in contention.

"I think our bullpen remains strong," Nathan said. "Last year wasn't as terrible as everybody made it out to be. We had a couple of bumps in the road, as you're going to every year."

With sidearmer Pat Neshek out for all of 2009 because of Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow, the Twins have the same eighth-inning job open that Neshek vacated when he first got hurt last May.

Right-hander Luis Ayala, who struggled to a 2-10 record and a 5.71 ERA last season with both the Washington Nationals and New York Mets, signed a one-year contract on Wednesday and was officially added to the mix.

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Left-hander Jose Mijares, who started last season in Double-A but took over as the setup man in late September and posted an 0.87 ERA with only three hits allowed in 10 1-3 innings, will get a long look.

Also under consideration are holdover right-handers Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier and lefty Craig Breslow, who was claimed off waivers last May after the Cleveland Indians let him go and had a 1.63 ERA in 42 appearances. Guerrier struggled badly last year, stumbling to a 6-9 record and a 5.19 ERA.

The Twins blew more than their share of leads, one big reason why the Chicago White Sox made the playoffs as AL Central champions and they were left out.

"We couldn't get a hot guy in the eighth inning," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We had guys who did it for a while, but we couldn't find a hot guy to go to, and we struggled. We tried a lot of different things. Most of the time in the bulllpen when the phone rings, they know who to send out there. We'd like to have that again."

This much is clear: Nathan will continue to be the leader.

After the team's formal workout Wednesday morning, members of the bullpen notably followed Nathan's lead for some extra conditioning. The 34-year-old had another stellar season in 2008 with 39 saves and a 1.33 ERA.

Nathan's dominance of the ninth makes his teammates start to think about watching the postgame highlights on the clubhouse TV.

"That is our feeling," shortstop Nick Punto said. "That's the reason we play him when we do. There are not many closers in the league like him. He's a special player. They don't come around like him very often. His work ethic is second to none."

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Nathan is just as confident in the rest of his fellow relievers.

"Everyone down in that pen has had some experience pitching late in games and in some tough situations," he said. "I think we got battle-tested last year. We're in better shape. I think guys are coming in this year with more confidence and knowing what to expect."

Bonser's shoulder woes

Right-hander Boof Bonser, who is competing for a job in long relief, threw a bullpen session Wednesday morning and felt further discomfort again in his throwing shoulder. Gardenhire said the plan is to wait for the shoulder to "calm down." Pitching coach Rick Anderson said tests revealed no structural damage.

Twins, Ayala agree

Right-handed reliever Luis Ayala and the Minnesota Twins finalized a $1.3 million, a one-year contract.

Ayala and the Twins agreed to terms earlier this month, but the team had to make room on the 40-man roster. Right-handed reliever Bobby Korecky was claimed off waivers Wednesday by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The 31-year-old Ayala went 1-8 with a 5.77 ERA for the Washington Nationals last season before being traded to the Mets on Aug. 17. He went 1-2 with a 5.50 ERA and nine saves for New York.

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Ayala has a career record of 28-34 and a 3.44 ERA with 18 saves, 78 walks and 227 strikeouts.

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