Supernatural: Santana Proves Unittable

MINNEAPOLIS–Johan Santana was so good this season he was telling opponents what was coming–and they still couldn’t hit him.

Before the Twins played the Cubs on June 23, Santana chatted with former Twins teammates Henry Blanco and Jacque Jones–telling both they were getting fastballs during their first at-bats. In Blanco’s case, it was two fastballs.

“If you’re going to get a hit, make sure it is in the yard,” Santana said to Blanco.

Santana was so determined to make good on his promise he shook off catcher Joe Mauer on a slider on the second pitch. Blanco struck out in the at-bat.

Jones, however, flied out to the left-field wall.

“Jacque almost took him deep,” Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “I said, ‘O.K., that’s it.’ “

Who need signals when you have a 93 mph fastball you can spot with ease, a biting 82-85 mph slider and two versions of a swing-altering changeup that comes in as slow as 78 mph?

After winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2004, Santana is the favorite to win again this season. In fact, Santana’s 16-7 record in 2005 was harmed by terrible run support, or he may be looking at a third straight Cy Young and the undisputed title of best pitcher in the game–if it’s not already indisputable. He’s 55-19 since 2004.

The question kicked around in the Twin Cities during the last month of the season was if Santana deserved more than a Cy Young Award–if he made a case to be the AL MVP. The Twins were 27-6 in the games he started. He swept the pitching triple crown, leading his league (as well as the major leagues) in wins (19), strikeouts (245), ERA (2.77) and, not to be overlooked, opponents batting average (.216).

In a year in which Albert Pujols continued his dominance, Ryan Howard made a run at 60 homers and Twins teammates Mauer and Justin Morneau arrived as elite hitters, Santana becomes the second pitcher to win Baseball America’s Major League Player of the Year award. He joins Pedro Martinez, who won the award in 1999.

Santana went 10-1 after the All-Star break to help the Twins complete a stunning run to the AL Central title–at the same time outclassing pitchers in both leagues with precision, smarts and dominant stuff.

“Well, he deserves it,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan says. “He’s had a tremendous year and was tremendous last year and the one before that.”

The Perfect No. 1 Starter

Santana, 27, is a manager’s dream. He gives relievers a day off by pitching into the late stages of games. He’s the classic ace, able to extend winning streaks and stop losing streaks.

“You put your rotation together, and you say you have this guy and this guy, and then you have Santana,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says. “You hate to put so much stock in one guy, but it is reality. That’s just the way it is with him.”

Santana does all of it usually with a smile on his face, cracking jokes in the clubhouse and often wishing everyone, “Happy Birthday,” when he arrives at the park.

Why? He views every day alive as a day worth celebrating.

When reporters noticed a smiley face and balloons drawn under the bill of Santana’s cap this year, he replied: “That’s what it’s all about, happiness and balloons.”

Opposing hitters aren’t happy.

“When Johan is on, he’s throwing his fastball for strikes,” Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge told the Detroit News. “He’s hitting the corners with it. When he’s hitting the corners, and you have to cover the changeup as well, it’s nearly impossible.”

Santana is a study in talent and executing pitches. His career took off three seasons ago after he learned how to adjust to hitters. If hitters swing early in the count, trying to avoid getting into conventional changeup counts, Santana will go with sliders and first-pitch changeups. If hitters try to run him out of games through high pitch counts, he’ll hammer the strike zone. When one pitch isn’t working, he’ll win without it.

He also ignores what his body tries to tell him. Santana finished the year battling back and hip soreness, plus a blister on his left middle finger that flares up from time to time. In fact, Santana battled back spasms in the game he told Blanco and Jones what he planned to throw them–but still pitched eight innings, holding the Cubs to one earned run.

Santana says he usually struggles to get out of bed the day after he pitches.

“Throughout your career you are going to have pain–every single player is going to go through that, and it is something you have to learn to live with,” he says.

He takes multiple visits to the whirlpool each week. He’ll jump in hot whirlpools for a few minutes then switch to cold whirlpools, the process of working out muscle soreness. To break up the monotony of running the day after starts, Santana will kick a soccer ball around on the field in the early afternoon, showing off a few nifty dribbles, flicks and chest traps. A big soccer fan, Santana owns several national team shirts.

It’s a little bit of fun in what is normally a dull routine. There’s weightlifting and stretching. Several members of the Twins training staff will have their hands on him in the days between his starts.

“People don’t realize that these guys are a big part of what we do,” Santana says of the trainers.

Even then, Santana may still battle pain during games that threatens his effectiveness.

“He’s got some years under his belt and knows what he wants,” Ryan says. “Sometimes he doesn’t have a great feel for his fastball. Sometimes he doesn’t have the feel for his slider and almost every time he gets through it. He’s a smart pitcher who’s been around the league.”

The Rule 5 Draft’s Biggest Gem

The Twins are getting plenty of acclaim lately for stealing pitchers Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser from the Giants in exchange for A.J. Pierzynski before the 2004 season. But the Santana acquisition should not be forgotten.

He was originally signed by Houston in 1996. By 1999, he was the No. 2 starter at low Class A Michigan, behind Roy Oswalt and ahead of his roommate Tim Redding.

Santana was 8-8, 4.66 in 1999 and was left off the Astros’ 40-man roster, making him eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

The Twins’ Midwest League manager at the time, Jose Marzan, recommended that the Twins consider Santana after watching him pitch a couple of times.

Marzan, now the Twins’ Latin American coordinator, liked Santana’s arm strength and his athleticism, though he had little other than a fastball.

The Twins were going to select Santana with the first pick in the 2000 Rule 5 draft, but the Marlins were worried the Twins were after their man, Jared Camp. So Florida agreed to select Santana with the second pick and trade him to the Twins–plus cash–if the Twins took Camp. Sure, the Twins said.

Santana’s first appearance in a major league spring training game was against Ken Griffey Jr., and the Reds. When asked a day earlier about facing Griffey, Santana replied, “I’m ready to rumble,” then struck Griffey out in the game.

Santana then replaced Eric Milton in a June game after Milton was hit with a line drive and got his first major league win–at Houston.

“It was my chance to show them they made a big mistake,” Santana later said.

That was win No. 1 of 78, the first win on the way to a Cy Young Award and making an argument that a pitcher can be the best player in the game–and perhaps the most valuable.

This has made him a hero in his native country of Venezuela, whose fans have seen pitchers like Santana, Carlos Zambrano and Freddy Garcia become among the best in the game. A national celebration erupted when Santana won the Cy Young in 2004, forcing controversial president Hugo Chavez to assign body guards to protect Santana and his family. Santana hails from Tovar, located in the Venezuelan Andes.

Santana lives in Golden Valley, Minn., during the season and also has a home in Fort Myers, Fla., where the Twins’ spring training headquarters are located. But that doesn’t mean Santana is distancing himself from his country.

He’s paid for chemotherapy treatments for a Venezuelan child with cancer. He’s purchased new parts for police motorcycles.

This year Santana, with help from the Twins, purchased a fire engine from the Coon Rapids, Minn., fire department to be shipped to his hometown.

“I try to help people out,” Santana says, “especially those in my community, my hometown.”

A Mentor To Liriano

Santana will earn $12 million next season and is signed through 2008. That will allow him to continue to provide advice and encouragement to another hard-throwing lefthander in Liriano.

Liriano frequently heads into the bullpen to watch Santana throw between starts, taking mental notes throughout. Liriano, 12-3, 2.16 this season, spent the fall in Fort Myers, rehabilitating a sore left elbow that cut his breakout rookie season short.

The possibility of Santana and Liriano combining for 400 innings next year would be as comforting to the Twins as it would be frightening to the rest of the league.

For now, they can count on Santana–who is as close to a sure thing as there is.

“There’s no question when he takes the mound we have a good chance to win a game,” Ryan says. “I think everyone in the industry recognizes the talent.”

La Velle Neal covers the Twins for the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis.

Majors | #2006 #Awards #Player Of The Year

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