10/04/2004 3:29 PM ET
Twins shrug off 'David vs. Goliath'
Minnesota confident with Santana on the hill in Game 1
|Johan Santana is ready to take on the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS. (Mark Duncan/AP)
NEW YORK -- The David and Goliath storyline is not holding up for Game 1 of this American League Division Series.
True, when the Minnesota Twins play the New York Yankees it is a one-sided match from the standpoint of player payroll, economics, market size. And it has often been one-sided on the field as well. But it is difficult to be David, the consummate underdog, when your starting pitcher is Johan Santana.
Santana goes against the Yankees' Mike Mussina Tuesday night in the Division Series opener. Santana, 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts, has been the most dominant starter in baseball over the past four months. The Twins may be perpetual underdogs against the Yankees in the mind of the baseball public, but with Santana on the mound, they cannot be considered long shots against anybody, anywhere, at any time.
"We always feel good with Johan on the mound," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Monday. "We throw up a three-spot, we think: 'Wow, we've got a pretty good chance here.' "
That would ordinarily be a statement you might only make about Randy Johnson. But the numbers support it in the case of Santana. Since June 9, he is 18-2. In his 22 starts since then, he has given up fewer than three earned runs 21 times. And the 22nd time he gave up exactly three runs. In 14 starts, he gave up one earned run or less. He produced a 33-inning scoreless streak in September. He has not lost a decision since July 11.
"Sandy Koufax, another left-hander, used to put up numbers like that," Yankees manager Joe Torre said Monday. "Those numbers don't exist anymore.
"When you look at a pitcher's numbers now, where you used to judge them by having an ERA in the 2s, now if someone is having a year and he's in the low 4s, you're saying: 'That's a pretty good year.' But when you're down where he is, that's pretty damned impressive."
Santana has appeared more than occasionally to be something approaching invincible. Santana was asked Monday if he felt invincible on the mound and he was wise enough to say "No." But he can't be lacking in confidence at this point, nor should he be, even against the Yankees. He has a 2.50 ERA in two starts against the Yanks this season.
"All I know is, they will have to go out there with the best, because I'm going to give it my best," he said.
Santana lost to the Yankees in the final game of the 2003 Division Series. But that was not Johan Santana in peak form. He required offseason arthroscopic elbow surgery to remove bone chips. So when he was asked Monday if he had learned anything from that start about pitching in the postseason or the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium, he responded:
"I know that I'm healthy, that's all I know. I know that we have a little more experience and then I also know that we didn't lose seven or 13 games in a row this year."
The reference there is to the fact that the Twins' record against the Yankees is not particularly encouraging. They had a 13-game regular season losing streak against New York that stretched from 2001 until this season when they won a three-game series in Minnesota. But they still lost the 2004 season series to the Yankees, 4-2.
And it is not as though the Yankees' Game 1 starter, Mussina, is anything less than a top-shelf opponent. Rounding back into form following a bout of inflammation in his right elbow, Mussina has produced six straight quality starts, three of which could have been more accurately described as superb starts.
"I feel fine," Mussina said Monday. "I haven't thought about my arm in five or six starts. I don't think about that stuff anymore. It's just about pitching. It is just the right pitch and the right location and let's go and that's it."
So Game 1 shapes up as a match fully worthy of October baseball, an event to anticipate before it happens and savor it when it does. What it doesn't shape up as, in large part because of Santana, is the tiny Twins against the great big Yanks.
The Twins will not mind the change in perspective. Twins general manager Terry Ryan has always said that focusing on the small-market, small-revenue aspects of the Minnesota operation is essentially defeatist, leading to excuses instead of production. So the Twins don't much like the David-Goliath approach against the Yankees, anyway.
"If you look at it as dollars, payroll, I suppose you look at it that way," Ryan said Monday. "But we don't look at it that way. We look at it as 25 vs. 25."
And with one of their 25 being Johan Santana, in fact their first one out of the gate being Johan Santana, the Twins, for this game at least, do not fit anywhere near the classic underdog role.
Michael Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.