NEW YORK -- Denard Span can still remember the bitter taste of the moment, one he now credits for helping him grow -- not just as a baseball player, but as a person.

"It was one of those defining moments in my life," Span said of the Twins' decision to send him to the Minors in favor of Carlos Gomez to open the 2008 season. "I feel like that's where I grew up to become a man and take a little more responsibility."

And as Span made his way back to Triple-A Rochester, where he had spent all of 2006 and '07, the former first-round Draft pick took the assignment not as an insult, but as a challenge.

"That's when he became an angry young man and said, 'I'll show you,'" Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Ever since then, that's exactly what he's been doing when he came back to the big leagues. He's been proving that he should have been there at the beginning."

Just 25, Span is quickly evolving into the player Minnesota envisioned: a speedy defensive player with pop at the plate. But his journey to the Majors hasn't been easy.

Selected by the Twins with the 20th overall pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, Span was a touted prospect, but struggled to translate his skills to the Minor League level. After taking three seasons to reach Double-A, Span was promoted to Rochester to open the 2007 season, where he looked overmatched at the plate and hit just .267 with three homers in 139 games. It was little surprise that he didn't receive a callup for 2007's expanded rosters, and Minnesota -- unsure about Span's development -- acquired Gomez that offseason to fill its outfield hole.

Meanwhile, Span persevered in Rochester, striving to be a better player, a better teammate and a better person.

"I took [the decision to get sent down] as constructive criticism, [as in] I can get better," Span said. "I take pride in that. I feel like if that didn't happen, I would maybe not be talking to you guys here."

Here is the American League Division Series, where Span's production has helped bolster the underdog Twins to an unlikely postseason berth, with wins in 11 of their final 14 regular-season games to earn the right to face the Yankees.

Division Series
Gm. 1NYY 7, MIN 2WrapVideo
Gm. 2NYY 4, MIN 3 (11)WrapVideo
Gm. 3NYY 4, MIN 1WrapVideo

In his first full year in the Majors, Span hit .311 with 68 RBIs and an on-base percentage (.392) that trailed only teammate and AL batting champion Joe Mauer. Span's 10 triples and 23 steals are tops on the team, while his 70 walks put him among the Twins' top three.

If Minnesota is going to pull off an upset against New York without injured superstar Justin Morneau, Span's production -- as well as top-of-the-order guys Orlando Cabrera and Mauer -- will be critical. Though the Twins fell, 7-2, in Wednesday night's Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, Span contributed two base hits -- one a double -- in his five at-bats.

"In the last month or so [without Morneau], you look at everybody's numbers, everybody's performance on the field, everybody stepped their games up," Span said. "That's the reason why we're here. Everybody, collectively as a team, elevated their game."