09/29/2003 9:36 PM ET
Santana is now topping charts
Pitcher hopes to set up Twins with victory
NEW YORK -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire joked that their struggles against the Yankees have been a setup for the playoffs. Johan Santana, he said, was a major part of that "setup."
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Fittingly, he was a setup man when the Yankees last faced him in a pair of scoreless appearances back in April. His lone appearance at Yankee Stadium was nothing short of dominant long relief -- eight strikeouts in four scoreless innings. He fanned four straight Yankees with 12 strikes in a 14-pitch stretch.
But as he bridged the gap between the Twins' big three -- Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays -- and closer Eddie Guardado, he still harbored hopes of cracking the rotation. For the AL Division Series, he's topping the staff by starting Game 1 against the Yankees on Tuesday.
"That tells you, hey, Santana is one nasty sucker, boy," center fielder Torii Hunter joked. "That tells you he's been consistent since he's been in the rotation."
When Yankees manager Joe Torre says he can't put much stock in New York's past success against Minnesota, Santana is a primary reason.
"He doesn't get scared," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said. "He has come down the stretch for them big time. I don't know much about him, but to me he looks ready."
Beyond the record -- Santana won his final eight decisions in the regular season -- he has the stats to back it up. He was the AL's pitcher of the month in August after going 5-0 with a 1.07 ERA and six quality starts, including back-to-back 10-strikeout performances.
He almost joined the rotation earlier. He nearly took Eric Milton's starting spot after Milton's knee injury, but it wasn't until Mays' elbow problems in July that Santana's work forced Gardenhire's hand.
"That's something he's wanted to do," Gardenhire said. "He thought he should've gotten a chance out of Spring Training. We signed Kenny Rogers. That being said, we finally put him in the rotation, and the second half of the year he's been fantastic."
What would've been a source of bitterness for some pitchers was no big deal for Santana.
"Once I was there, I was like, 'I'm not going to give up,'" Santana said. "I was upset in the beginning, but I realized that what they were doing is trying to make us stronger. I was OK with that, and from there I just went to the bullpen and did what I was doing last year."
On a team that has to listen to questions about possible free agency losses, Santana is Exhibit A that Minnesota has talent to maintain their run. At 24, what made Santana a late-inning nightmare -- a low-90s fastball, quality changeup and slider -- translates into starts. He has worked this year to throw all his pitches at the same speed and make them look the same out of his arm.
The pressure he faced in relief, meanwhile, has made him consistent in mindset as much as stuff.
"As a reliever," Santana said. "I felt every time that I came in I had to just get people out. As a starter, you have more pitches, more time. You're able to do other things."
The consistency is the key. "That's why he's a No. 1 starter," Hunter said.
Santana wants to be a top starter, but he won't go that far. "Brad is No. 1," he said, "but I have a chance to do it."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.