FORT MYERS, Fla. -- You'd think Eric Milton was Nolan Ryan the way he's being treated by Minnesota Twins fans on spring break.
''People bring it up all the time,'' the left-hander said of his no-hitter against Anaheim last season. ''Everybody I talk to, especially from Minneapolis, is: 'How about two no-hitters this year?'
''People don't expect much, huh? I guess that's what brought my name into a lot of people's minds. I guess it is my definition now.''
And Milton doesn't mind.
He knows he's one of precious few major league players who will ever be defined by something so extraordinary as a no-hitter.
Milton tossed a no-hitter for Falmouth in the Cape Cod League while on summer break at the University of Maryland in 1996.
The Cape Cod League is known for its hitters, not its pitchers.
''It's the best college competition you can find in the summer months,'' Milton said.
So, that was his career highlight until last Sept. 11, when he threw the fifth no-hitter in club history, one of three thrown in the majors in 1999.
''It's something I'll probably never even come close to again because it's something special,'' Milton said. ''I'm lucky I had a chance to do it.''
Milton was acquired from the New York Yankees in the Chuck Knoblauch trade in 1998, and his '99 season, especially the strong second half, solidified his position as the team's No. 2 starter.
It's a role that could grow sooner rather than later with right-hander Brad Radke's contract stalemate.
When the Twins balked at Radke's request for a three-year, $28 million deal this winter, the right-hander and his agent, Ron Simon, upped the ante by demanding an opt-out clause after one year so that Radke could leave if he didn't like the direction the club was headed.
The Twins refused to include such a clause and Simon declared negotiations over until after the season.
Because Radke would become a free agent then, able to leave without compensation to the Twins, the club will almost certainly trade their ace by the July 31 deadline unless Radke and his agent resume talks.
Milton has no desire to become the club's main man, however.
''I hope that never happens, I hope Brad never leaves,'' Milton said. ''We want him to be the ace and I'll be the nice 1-2 punch to go along with him. You have two solid guys on the top of your rotation, it's something you've got to have.
''If we go into a three-game series and me and Brad go out there and win two, we've got the series,'' Milton said. ''Not only do you need an ace, but you need someone to go along with him. Righty-lefty combination works for us. I'm just hoping they can get the deal done to keep him here because we need him.''
Milton was 7-11 with a 4.49 ERA last season, but the Twins scored just 17 runs in his 11 losses and he had a solid second half, which included his first career shutout, a three-hitter July 31 at Anaheim.
Perfecting his slider to go with his fastball, curve and changeup, all rated above average, Milton led the club in starts, complete games, shutouts and strikeouts and earned the Charles O. Johnson award as the most improved Twins player.
''What I liked about last year was the second half of the season, not just the no-hitter,'' Milton said. ''A lot of people single out the no-hitter, but if you look at my numbers after the All-Star break, to me, they're pretty impressive. I hope I can keep that going this year.''
Mention his no-hitter if you want, just don't call him ace.
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