MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -Ramon Ortiz has found smiling much easier this spring, and the Minnesota Twins are sure happy to help.
After the market for pitchers exploded over the winter, Ortiz was still available as a free agent in January at the relative bargain price of $3.1 million for one year. The reason? He went 25-34 with a 5.20 ERA over the previous three seasons for three different teams.
The Twins, who lost Game 2 of the 2002 AL championship series to Ortiz and the Anaheim Angels, have remained high on Ortiz, despite his slump in recent seasons.
With openings in a suddenly uncertain rotation, signing him for that price was an easy decision. So far, so good. He's 3-1 with a 2.48 ERA in four appearances, entering his scheduled start Friday night at Detroit.
``He's rewarded us for that diligence, just because he's gone out and done what we hoped he would do,'' general manager Terry Ryan said. ``There's not anything here that's been a negative in any way.''
Ortiz's early success has been an especially big boost considering reigning Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana's 24-start unbeaten streak at home ended with two consecutive losses. Carlos Silva has showed improvement, but Boof Bonser hasn't found the strike zone and Sidney Ponson has struggled in every start.
Minnesota's offense has been sputtering, too, making Ortiz that much more valuable as the Twins (12-10) headed toward a three-game series with the Tigers.
Ortiz, who turns 34 next month, still has plenty to prove, but the right-hander has figured out how to effectively channel his emotions on the mound with assistance from pitching coach Rick Anderson. Their goal is to avoid those disastrous innings that dogged him with Cincinnati and Washington the last two seasons.
Though he logged 190-plus innings for the Nationals and made 33 starts last year, Ortiz went 11-16 with a 5.57 ERA. That's a result of his tendency to give up runs in big bunches, a problem caused partially by his high-strung personality.
``Sometimes, when they get base hit after base hit, I try to do too much and we leave a ball in the middle of the plate,'' Ortiz said in his halting English. ``Now that's different. When I got problems again, what I do is I try to relax and make a good pitch. That's working very good.''
In addition to using both breaking balls and the inside part of the plate more effectively than he has previously, Ortiz has relished the experience with his new team and repeatedly expressed his enthusiasm.
When I see Minnesota wants to sign me, I say, 'Yes. Yes I do want to go there,' because in the past I see the way this team plays,'' Ortiz said. ``This team competed. They play hard, everybody.''
Ortiz grew up in the Dominican Repbulic with 13 siblings in a family that lived on very little. He became extremely close to his father, Alfonso, as they worked job after job to make what ever money they could for the rest of the family.
That included harvesting rice in the fields and even cutting hair, a skill Ortiz still uses - counting Santana as a recent client. Though a second visit to the clubhouse barber has not yet been scheduled and Santana won't pay for the service, he smiled when asked about his curly trim.
``That's pretty good,'' Santana said.
Ortiz, stroking his goatee, pointed proudly to his chin.
``I like to do it for myself,'' he said, grinning.
It's not just for him, though. His father died more than 3 1/2 years ago, and Ortiz has acknowledged that the deep grief affected his pitching performance.
``Sometimes you try to forget about it for the moment, but it's hard,'' he said, adding: ``For the guys and for my father, I do my best in the game.''

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