June 19, 2007

Game #69: One-Man Gang

Hey there Delilah
What's it like in New York city?
I'm a thousand miles away
But girl tonight you look so pretty
Yes you do
Times Square can't shine as bright as you
I swear it's true

- Plain White T's, "Hey there Delilah"

See how easy things can be when the lineup actually scores Johan Santana some runs? Handed five runs to work with in the second inning--more offense than the Twins totaled in 10 of his 14 previous starts--Santana needed just 92 pitches to cruise through the Mets' lineup while turning in the fourth complete-game shutout of his brilliant career in a 9-0 victory. Santana's last shutout came in August of 2005, when he tossed a three-hitter in a 1-0 win over the A's.

He recorded nine strikeouts that night and also had nine strikeouts when he hurled a four-hit shutout against the Diamondbacks two month earlier. Santana's first career shutout came against the Royals in July of 2004, when he racked up 13 strikeouts in a three-hitter. Last night's shutout was a totally different animal, because Santana's first and only strikeout didn't come until he completely fooled Paul Lo Duca on a perfect two-strike changeup in the ninth inning.

His final pitching line was both pretty and strange:

 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT
9.0 4 0 0 0 1 0 92

Santana has never failed to record a strikeout in 157 career starts and his only previous one-strikeout performance came against the Indians on April 6, 2004. Interestingly, that was Santana's very first start since being handed a full-time spot in the rotation that spring. Between his pair of one-strikeout starts, Santana took the mound 114 times and pitched 782 innings, going 61-25 (.709) with a 2.80 ERA while striking out 9.8 batters per nine innings.

Over that 114-start stretch, Santana failed to record at least five strikeouts just 15 times and racked up double-digit strikeouts 32 times. So how did he manage a lone strikeout against the Mets? As Santana and Joe Mauer both said after the game, the Mets clearly approached at-bats wanting to swing very early in counts. Santana also seemed to approach them the same way, perhaps in response to the recent talk about pitch counts and Ron Gardenhire pulling him from games before he wants to leave.

Either that or Santana decided that conserving pitches and working efficiently also gave him the best chance to win a pre-game bet with Bert Blyleven that allowed Santana to shave the should-be Hall of Famer's head if he tossed a shutout. Santana seemed awfully excited about winning the bet when asked about it afterward, but whatever the reason or motivation his taming of the Mets involved a lot fewer swing-and-misses and a lot more long fly balls finding gloves than we've gotten used to seeing.

Lost in what Santana did on the mound is what he did at the plate. With runners on the corners and none out in the second inning, Santana took a big hack at a high fastball, fouling it straight back, and then coaxed a five-pitch walk against Jorge Sosa to load the bases in what turned out to be a five-run inning. With two runners on base and two outs in the third inning, Santana hit a high chopper up the middle and missed out on an infield hit by about a half-step when Jose Reyes made a nice play.

After Jason Bartlett flied out to begin the fifth inning, Santana yanked a two-strike breaking ball from Sosa down the right-field line for a stand-up double. He came around to score the Twins' eighth run on Michael Cuddyer's infield single, before grounding out in each of his final two trips to the plate. You know things are going well when the starting pitcher gets five plate appearances, and Santana nearly went 2-for-4 with a walk and a double.

After settling for a 1-for-4 night, Santana is now a .250/.276/.286 career hitter and has struck out just four times in 29 plate appearances. Compare those numbers to the .272/.310/.316 career hitting line belonging to Jason Tyner, who FSN play-by-play announcer Dick Bremer breathlessly called "a great acquisition by the Twins" in the middle innings last night despite the fact that Tyner's yet to throw a single complete-game shutout.

If Rondell White never gets "healthy" and the Twins fail to acquire a veteran bat before the trading deadline, perhaps they can use Santana at DH down the stretch. Thanks in large part to Gardenhire ridiculously already giving Tyner 11 starts there--in which he's hit .244/.320/.286--the Twins have gotten a combined .249/.328/.346 hitting line from the DH spot. Who needs White or Ty Wigginton or Adam Dunn when you already have the Venezuelan Babe Ruth.

A few other notes from one of the most enjoyable games in a long time ...

  • Two of Jeff Cirillo's three hits weren't exactly well-struck, but my guess is that his performance last night will be more than enough to convince Gardenhire to begin giving him much of the third-base playing time that previously belonged to Nick Punto. Cirillo as an everyday third baseman is far from ideal, but at this point it's a viable alternative to Punto, especially when a fly-ball pitcher like Santana is on the mound.

    Cirillo is hitting .253/.324/.352 overall after a slow start was followed by a stint on the disabled list, and looks capable of approaching the combined .291/.355/.402 hitting line he posted from 2004-2006. Punto is hitting .225/.317/.293 this season after batting .265/.330/.352 from 2004-2006, so the potential offensive upgrade would likely be worth what could be a significant dropoff defensively. However, the danger of taking Punto away from third base is that Gardenhire could use him to bench Bartlett.

    In fact, he's already hinting at that, telling Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that "Punto's going to play ... he can go to short, he can go everywhere." Meanwhile, after going 2-for-5 Bartlett is now hitting .270 with a .352 on-base percentage since beginning the season in a 1-for-20 slump. He's also 9-for-9 stealing bases and has shown good range defensively. And if you think any of that could possibly keep Gardenhire from handing Punto his starting job, you haven't been paying attention.

  • Mauer came into the game just 7-for-37 (.189) since returning from the disabled list, but went 2-for-4 with a walk and a hard-hit double while making one of his outs on a long fly ball to center field. He also appears to be running pretty well, which is probably a bigger short-term concern than his swing given the quadriceps injury that sidelined him for over a month.
  • Matched up against a mediocre, hard-throwing right-handed starting pitcher, it was nice to see the Twins actually chase him from the game early rather than make him look like a Cy Young candidate. Sosa struggles to throw strikes and is typically relatively hittable when he does, and the Twins took a lot of pitches and slashed a lot of line drives all over the field. It was also good to see them continue the damage when a washed-up veteran, Aaron Sele, came in to mop up for Sosa.
  • After leading off the second inning with a sharp single to left field, Torii Hunter's baserunning was fantastic. When Cirillo hit a looping quasi-fly ball into shallow center field, Hunter calculated that the ball would drop in for a hit and immediately took off for second base. Sure enough, it died in the no man's land behind second base and the good jump allowed Hunter to race for third base, with Carlos Beltran's too-late throw skipping into the dugout.

    The Twins, and specifically Hunter, make more outs on the bases by being overly aggressive than I'd like to see, but that was a case of smart aggression. Speed and good baseball instincts lessened the risk of being thrown out considerably and the payoff was big, with Hunter scoring the first run of the game to give Santana an early lead when he otherwise could have been stuck at second base with the bottom half of the lineup coming up.

  • Not only were the soon-to-be-bald Blyleven and 48-year-old Julio Franco teammates on the Indians from 1983-1985, Blyleven played with 37-year-old Damian Easley on the 1992 Angels.
  • Santana is now 15-4 with a 2.29 ERA in 176.2 career interleague innings.

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

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