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Santana set to continue dominance10/04/2004 3:27 PM ET
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- Torii Hunter calls Johan Santana's slider "The Equalizer." To everyone else, Santana is what could set the Twins apart from the Yankees.
Of all the differences between this year's Minnesota team and the one that came to Yankee Stadium for last year's American League Division Series, Santana is clearly the most important. Technically, he topped the Twins' postseason rotation last year, too, starting Game 1 at the Bronx. But back then, it was because they didn't want him starting on short rest for a possible Game 5.
This year, if they have a game they need to win for survival, they want Santana pitching it. They rested him down the stretch to keep him healthy when it's win-or-else. He hasn't known the "else" part in about three months.
"I don't know if I've ever seen a pitcher do what he's done," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I mean, you're talking 10, 12, 14 strikeouts a game and very seldom giving up runs."
He hasn't lost since the day before the All-Star break, and it took a two-hit shutout from Detroit's Jason Johnson to beat him. He hasn't had a non-quality start since June 3. Until Gardenhire rested him here last Wednesday, he hadn't pitched fewer than six innings in a start since May 23. He's given up two runs since the end of August thanks to a 33-inning scoreless streak that ended two starts ago.
At that point, he affects more than opposing hitters. On days he pitches, he carries his team's mindset with him. With Santana on the mound, the team that has become known as the consummate underdog in part for not having one dominant player becomes the prohibitive favorite.
"The confidence he exudes out there on the mound rubs off on the rest of the team," second baseman Michael Cuddyer said.
When they're playing behind Santana and they put up a couple of runs, Gardenhire said, they like their chances. But when they've played behind him, the runs haven't been that hard to come by, and the team hasn't sunk into a lull.
Twice during his 15-game unbeaten streak, the Twins have scored fewer than three runs. Eight times, they've scored seven or more. Defensively, Minnesota's surehanded defense has saddled him with just two unearned runs over the streak, none since Aug. 1.
That's what Santana wants to discuss, not any feeling of invincibility. He wants to tout the Twins' philosophy of team play more than he wants to campaign for a Cy Young Award.
"You know, a lot of things have to go right for you to win a game," he said. "Fortunately, everything has been right when I pitch. It's not just me, it's the whole team. We are able to play as a team, and that's the difference."
The upshot of invincibility is that the confidence works both ways. For every zero posted that makes the Twins feel better about their chances, the more urgent opponents feel about theirs.
In Santana's five innings here last week, the Yankees managed three hits. All of them went for extra bases, including a double and solo homer from Hideki Matsui, as the Yankees tried to attack him on first-pitch fastballs. Yankees All-Star Gary Sheffield anticipates the same approach Tuesday night.
"If you let him get late in the game, get settled in, he gets tougher," Sheffield said. "When he's on the mound with a lead, it's tough to come back from. We have to get to him early."
Statistically, he's right. The highest batting average Santana has allowed, and the most runs he's yielded, have come in his first 15 pitches of a game. OK, so that average is just .233. It's better than the .175 average he allows in his next 15 pitches, or .151 in the 15 deliveries after that.
The more hitters wait, the more deceptive his stuff becomes, from his mid-90s fastball to his nasty changeup to The Equalizer. All of it looks the same coming out of his arm, which is a major difference between Santana this year and last. Longer looks don't seem to make a difference.
But the aggressiveness, A-Rod said, has a catch. "You still want to make sure you hit strikes," he said. "You want to make sure you hit quality pitches, and you take good swings. You don't want to be so overly aggressive that you play into his game."
The Twins hope they do. They were on the other side of that pitching in the playoffs last year, taking bad swings and early exits against Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. This year, the small-market Twins have the big-time ace. It's up to others to respond.
"Sandy Koufax, another left-hander, used to have numbers like that," manager Joe Torre said. "Those numbers don't exist anymore."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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