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Blanco is Twins' unsung hero
10/04/2004 5:20 PM ET
NEW YORK -- When sizing up playoff teams, everyone looks at the numbers and the intangibles.

The numbers say Twins catcher Henry Blanco batted .206 this season. But the stat sheet also says his club's pitching staff posted an American League-best 4.03 ERA in 2004. The standings say that Minnesota again won the AL Central title.

Considering that Blanco caught 114 games, it's made him a rather important and unexpected intangible for Minnesota.

"Without him? Shoot, who knows where we are?" pondered closer Joe Nathan.

When the Twins signed the 33-year-old veteran backup last winter, it was designed that Blanco would be a third-string catcher that played once a week while mentoring heralded rookie Joe Mauer.

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That plan essentially went out the window all of two games into the season when Mauer hurt his knee and needed surgery. The 21-year-old played a total of 35 games all season, none since July 15. Mauer's first replacement, Matthew LeCroy, also went on the disabled list with a rib cage injury the third day of the season.

All that remained was Blanco. He responded by hitting three homers in April, but he had already earned immediate praise for his handling of pitchers.

"When Joe went down, [Blanco] knew what he had to do," Twins starter Brad Radke said. "He really controlled the staff well."

Johan Santana won 20 games and was undefeated after the All-Star break. Carlos Silva, a first-time starting pitcher, won 14. Juan Rincon stepped up and became a strong eighth-inning setup man with 11 wins. All are fellow Venezuelans. While his numbers didn't reflect it, Radke had his best season on the mound.

"They're an unbelievable pitching staff," Blanco praised.

Certainly, pitchers deserve much of the credit -- but so does Blanco.

"Most of the time when you have a pretty good pitching staff, you better have someone that can put the right fingers down," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "He's done very, very well. He's a veteran. Once our kid went down, he pretty much had to take over a big role."

Many say catching is baseball's most important position. They call the game for pitchers, take charge in the field and have knowledge of about every opposing hitter. Plus, no other position on the field demands more physically. Blanco battled shoulder and neck pain, among other nagging maladies, but rarely missed his turn to play.

"I went out there almost every day and did what they wanted me to," said Blanco, who debuted in the Majors in 1997 and caught for five clubs. "They wanted me to work with the pitching staff. That's what I did."

To Twins pitchers, Blanco was Dr. Phil with a facemask or Mr. Goodwrench with a glove. He could tell them what's wrong, mentally and physically, and how to fix it.

Before 2004, the most games Blanco caught in a season was 104 with the Brewers in 2001.
-- courtesy Elias Sports Bureau

"I need a guy that's learned the game and knows hitters," said Nathan, who had 44 saves as a first-year closer. "I'm not going to sit there and try to out-think a guy at the plate. I let the catcher do that. I just throw the ball. The more comfortable I feel that they know what they're doing back there calling the game, the better off I am on the mound."

If pitchers loved Blanco, opposing runners didn't feel likewise. He nailed better than 48 percent of runners trying to steal. His 30 runners caught stealing was second-best in the AL.

"It's not like everyone expected," Blanco said. "Everyone was expecting Joe to play the full season. He got hurt. That's why we're a team. I stepped in and helped this team out. I'm glad we did what we have done."

The .206 average doesn't twinkle, but his 10 home runs and 37 RBIs often came as important hits.

"For whatever reason, when we need a hit and he comes up in the seven, eight or nine hole, it seems like he's come through," said Twins general manager Terry Ryan. "I know he's hitting [.206] or whatever it is. But he's hitting a powerful [.206]."

In 1987, the Twins had a catcher named Tim Laudner who belted 16 homers with 43 RBIs while batting .191. Not coincidentally, that club won the World Series with pitchers with names like Viola and Blyleven.

Blanco would love to accomplish the same feat calling pitches for hurlers like Santana, Radke, Silva and Nathan.

"We've got the pitching staff to do it," Blanco said.

And maybe the catcher, too.

"Everybody has been great and doing their job," Radke said. "Henry has been a big part of it, of course."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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