Minneapolis, Minn. — The Twins had originally hoped to lock up the division title at the Metrodome during their three-game weekend series with the Orioles. But they looked distinctly un-champion-like in the first two games, allowing the Orioles to score a total of 23 runs while the Twins managed only 5.
Slumps are not likely to lost long, though, when a team's pitching rotation includes the 25-year-old Venezuelan left-hander named Johan Santana.
This time out, Santana looked in the early going like he might be vulnerable. The Orioles managed five hits in the first three innings but scored no runs, thanks to some sharp Twins fielding and timely strikeouts. Once a hitter reached two strikes, some of the fans would start cheering, rooting Santana on toward strike three.
"All my pitches were working pretty good," Santana said. "The key was get ahead on the count and then throw for strikes. When you're able to do that and then start mixing up your pitches, it makes a difference. So, that's what I was doing."
After the third inning, Santana settled into a groove that had him dominating the Orioles through the eighth. He allowed three harmless singles in that stretch, no batter reached second base, and nine more struck out, including all three hitters in the eighth, by which time the crowd of 31,399 was roaring with every Santana strike.
I think what makes him so good is that of the three pitches he's got, he can strike out people with any of those three.
Catcher Henry Blanco says in the eighth, his teammate was in high gear.
"He sees all the fans standing up and cheering for him," said Blanco. "The emotion -- you could see it on his face after he struck out that guy. It's unbelievable. And that guy deserves it. Hopefully he'll continue that way all the way through October."
Some of the cheers turned to boos when relief pitcher Joe Nathan came to the mound for the ninth inning. Manager Ron Gardenhire says he considered letting Santana finish the game, but decided against it when the Twins' half of the eighth moved slowly as they padded their lead to five runs.
Gardenhire says there was nothing to be gained by having his star pitcher risk injury in an inconsequential inning.
"In my opinion, nothing good can happen from there on," he told reporters after the game. "If something happens to that kid out there -- you guys all want to see a shutout. I want to see Santana in five days start again, and that's why I took him out. That's what I've done all year and I'll stay with it."
Santana has now won 19 games and lost six. He has the best earned run average of any starting pitcher in the American League, and is now the favorite to win the Cy Young Award, which goes to the league's best pitcher.
Gardenhire says Santana's pitching has been amazing. But he adds that some of the credit should be shared with his catcher, Blanco, who is also from Venezuela.
"They work very well together," said Gardenhire. "Henry has done a fantastic job with Johan. They're very comfortable. They're on the same page at all times. You tip your hat to our catcher, too, along with a pitcher with great stuff."
Santana's 14 strikeouts against the Orioles were the most he's ever had in one big league game. He's broken a team record this year by striking out 10 or more batters in a game 12 times.
Pitchers who accumulate lots of strikeouts tend to have a certain type of pitch -- usually their fastball -- that they use to get a big out in key situations. But Blanco says Santana does not have such a bread-and-butter pitch. He has three of them. Which means hitters never really know what's coming.
"I think what makes him so good is that of the three pitches he's got, he can strike out people with any of those three," said Blanco. "He's a got a pretty good fastball, a slider, and a change-up. And that's hard for a hitter trying to look for a pitch, when a guy dominates the other two pitches like he does."
Santana may break more records the next time he pitches, which will probably be in Cleveland on Friday night. His 30 consecutive scoreless innings are one shy of the team record. He needs five more strikeouts to break the Twins record for most in a season. And a 13th straight victory would be the most for any Twins pitcher.
In the meantime, Santana's teammates will try to finish off the second-place White Sox Monday night. Carlos Silva will pitch the first of three games in Chicago.