May 22, 2007

Game #45: The Johan & Justin Show

One night after they bludgeoned Carlos Silva and Julio DePaula for 14 runs, Johan Santana took the mound in Texas and the Rangers had trouble simply making contact. After serving up a long solo homer to Sammy Sosa leading off the second inning, Santana got swinging strikeouts on the next five batters he faced and never looked back. He finished one short of a career-high with a season-high 13 strikeouts in seven innings, with Sosa's homer accounting for the lone run.

Santana picked up at least one strikeout in each of the seven innings he worked, striking out the side in both the second and sixth frames. Amazingly, all 13 of his strikeouts were of the swinging variety, which is what can happen when Santana's second-to-none fastball-changeup combination is truly clicking. It was the 35th time in Santana's career that he's reached double-digit strikeouts, with No. 34 coming last time out against the Indians.

Unlike that start, when Fausto Carmona tossed a complete-game shutout to slap Santana with a hard-luck loss, the Twins' lineup provided him with some run support. After Sosa put the Rangers up 1-0, Justin Morneau took the lead with a two-run homer in the fourth inning and then added a three-run bomb in the next frame to put the Twins up 5-1. With Santana exiting after setting the Rangers down 1-2-3 in the seventh inning, Torii Hunter tacked on a two-run shot in the eighth inning to make it 7-1.

Pat Neshek and Joe Nathan combined for five more strikeouts in two innings of relief to lock down the victory, with Santana improving his record to 5-4 despite receiving more than three runs of offensive support for just the third time in 10 starts. Along with lowering his ERA to 3.05, Santana reclaimed the league lead in strikeouts with 80, overtaking Erik Bedard and C.C. Sabathia. Here's how his current numbers compare through the same point in previous seasons:

YEAR     GS     W     L       IP      ERA     SO     BB     HR     OAVG
2004 10 2 2 54.2 5.60 48 17 10 .301
2005 10 5 2 68.1 3.82 83 8 8 .228
2006 10 4 4 68.1 3.42 75 14 8 .240
2007 10 5 4 65.0 3.05 80 18 10 .222

Santana has traditionally been a slow starter, but this year he turned in a fine April and has been even better in May. The result is the best ERA of his career through 10 starts (although a league-wide drop in scoring has helped), but aside from carrying ugly numbers into June during his first full season in the rotation, Santana more or less found his groove by late May in both 2005 and 2006. In fact, it's remarkable how similar Santana's numbers through 10 starts have been in the past three seasons.

He won 5, 4, and 5 games. Pitched 68.1, 68.1, and 65 innings. Posted ERAs of 3.82, 3.42, and 3.05. Racked up 83, 75, and 80 strikeouts. Served up 8, 8, and 10 homers. And allowed opponents to bat .228, .240, and .222 against him. As was the case at the end of April, not only does Santana have the rest of the league right where he wants them for another Cy Young award, he's on track for the best season of his career. Oh, and the game's other hero is playing pretty well too.

With a pair of homers Morneau now ranks second among AL hitters with 13 long balls, behind only Alex Rodriguez (who blasted 14 in April alone). Morneau is sporting a .285/.362/.570 line through 45 games, which is actually better than the MVP-winning .321/.375/.559 line he finished last season with once the league-wide drop in scoring is accounted for. Of course, Morneau wasn't hitting nearly that well last May, so here's how his current pace stacks up with last season's performance at this stage:

YEAR      G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     RBI     RUN
2006 40 165 .243 .303 .473 9 34 19
2007 45 196 .285 .362 .570 13 32 32

Morneau actually had more RBIs at this point last season despite not being particularly good, but the rest of his numbers are up significantly this time around. Interestingly, through the Twins' first 45 games back in 2005, Morneau was hitting .319/.364/.588. However, he had played in just 31 of those games thanks to getting beaned in the head by Ron Villone during the season's first series and went on to post a horrific .213/.285/.388 line for the remainder of the schedule.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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