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10/02/06 10:50 PM ET

Zito knows importance of first game

Left-hander faces tough task in opposing Twins' Santana

MINNEAPOLIS -- There are not many left-handers in baseball that Barry Zito could face and be considered the underdog.

Minnesota Twins' Johan Santana is one of them.

Over the past four years, Santana is 67-22 with a .753 winning percentage, a 2.81 ERA and 917 strikeouts. He is No. 1 among left-handers in wins, winning percentage, ERA and strikeouts over those four years.

In the same stretch, Zito is 55-46 with a .545 winning percentage, a 3.86 ERA and 631 strikeouts for the Oakland Athletics. The strikeouts are third, the wins and ERA are seventh, but the winning percentage is only 16th among left-handers over the past four years.

Yet Zito, who won 23 games and the Cy Young Award in 2002, knows that if he can beat Santana on Tuesday, he can give the Athletics a huge advantage over the Twins in the American League Division Series.

Rotation depth is the reason why.

"I think so," Zito said Monday afternoon before the Athletics' workout at the Metrodome. "We are pretty strong one through four, one through five, whatever it is. That gives us the ability in the middle part of the series to step it up offensively against these guys, but you can't take any of the starters lightly.

"These guys have all had success, and they're in the playoffs, so I want to go out and set the tone and put up a good outing, and hopefully it will turn out all right."

Statistically, the rotations appear equal. The Athletics' rotation was 68-54 with a 4.50 ERA during the regular season, while the Twins were 70-56 with a 4.50 ERA.

But the numbers don't reflect what's going on between the two staffs. Oakland's staff may be getting stronger. Minnesota's has question marks.

The Twins are without Francisco Liriano, their 12-game winner who is out for the playoffs with an elbow injury. Brad Radke, a 12-game winner, has been grinding it out with a stress fracture and labrum tear in his shoulder. Carlos Silva is 11-15 but with a 5.94 ERA, second highest for a qualified starter in the American League. Rookie Boof Bonser is the starter in Game 2 because he had a strong September.

Oakland may have to put 16-game winner Joe Blanton in the bullpen if Rich Harden is ready to start. Danny Haren was a 14-game winner, and Esteban Loaiza was 8-4 with a 4.01 ERA in the second half.

"Pitching has to set the tone starting tomorrow," Zito said. "We need to carry that off and hope offense can stretch a few across because they are very much defense-oriented."

Santana does not go down easily in the Metrodome. He was 12-0 with a 2.19 ERA at home, and the Twins have won his last 23 starts at the Metrodome.

"He's definitely one of the best left-handers in the game, a Cy Young winner," Oakland outfielder Mark Kotsay said. "But we feel confident in Barry. He's a pretty good pitcher himself and he's pitched in some big games.

"Getting any of these games here would be big, but no one game is more important than another. In a five-game series, anything can happen. Oakland knows that. They were up two games one year and didn't advance."

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That was in 2001 when the Athletics won the first two games against the Yankees and had Zito pitching in Game 3 in Oakland. He was brilliant, allowing just two hits in eight innings.

But one was a home run by Jorge Posada, and the Athletics lost, 1-0, as the Yankees rallied to take the series.

That was won of two losses for Zito in postseason play. The other was in the fifth and deciding game of the 2003 ALDS against the Red Sox. He led 1-0 into the sixth but Jason Varitek led off the inning with a home run, Manny Ramirez hit a three-run home run and the Red Sox eventually eliminated the Athletics with a 4-3 victory.

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So in five career playoff starts, Zito is 3-2 with a 2.76 ERA. He beat the Minnesota Twins in Game 3 of the 2002 ALDS, allowing three runs in six innings.

"You know he is a great pitcher," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's going to be two outstanding left-handers going after each other, Zito and Johann are, and hits are going to be at a premium.

"Zito has got all the pitches. He's a great pitcher, so you just have to find a way to get on the base, run around the base, and score a couple of hits. It's not going to be easy, never has, and that's why they are in the playoffs, because they have got a great pitching staff. We feel the same way, so it's not going to be easy, no matter what."

The Athletics just know that it will be much easier if their ace left-hander can out-pitch the Twins guy in the first game on Tuesday. It may not decide the series, but it would be a huge victory for Zito and the Athletics.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.