by Thomas U. Tuttle
A couple of years ago the Minnesota Twins picked up veteran righty Ervin Ramon Santana with the hope that he could become the club ace and provide leadership to a young staff. Instead, they picked up a very expensive (four years, $55 mil) and challenging player situation, a man who was about to be suspended for half of the 2015 season on suspicion of performance enhancing drug use.
Santana was nonetheless able to contribute a little something to the Twins surprising team that year, finishing 7-5 for first year manager Paul Molitor’s overachieving (83-79) squad – all the while consistently denying the usage of anything illicit.
2016’s debacle season (59-103) was aided by Santana’s inconsistency and lack of support from the Twins offense, resulting in a weak 7-11 record despite an impressive ERA of 3.38 – among the top ten in the American League. Those of us who watched a number of his appearances in ’16 know that he pitched in hard luck on several occasions, but also gave up some crucial blows, at critical times, from the opposing side.
This year, our man Ervin is just right. His win in shutting out the Giants on a recent Friday gives him more wins than last year (eight) and one of the best all-around statistical seasons in baseball to this point, with one more shutout (three) than the rest of the league combined (two). Pretty amazing run thus far, and an All Star game start could well be just a couple more wins away.
(Interesting but little known fact: Ervin was actually born Johan Ramon Santana in La Romana, Dominican Republic – but there was a problem with that first name because, as most Twins fans know, there was already another Johan Santana – the formidable and established MLB star who throws from the left side. “I needed another first name, so I went with Ervin because it sounded good,” he said.
Against the Giants, he not only pitched the Twins to a 4-0 complete game shutout, Ervin also hit a bases clearing three-run double to greatly help his own cause. Not bad for a guy who rarely takes batting practice.
In serving up an exceptional 4-hitter, with 26 of 31 possible first pitch strikes and a triple San Francisco’s only well-struck base hit, he provided more evidence that, right now, he’s one of the best in the game.
Granted, recent two-time World Champion San Francisco has been having trouble this year, but the Minnesota road warriors continue their dominance away from home. When you think about it, the facts are nothing short of amazing; as of this writing the Twins are a baseball-leading 20-8 when visiting and a MLB worst 12-18 in the friendly confines of Target Field.
With a team not that much different from last season, they are in first place by two games in a division that looks like it could remain in play all summer. The defending AL best Cleveland Indians are struggling to find themselves, with some major cogs underperforming to this point. The White Sox continue a period (years) of struggle and the ongoing failure of Kansas City requires more study; the Detroit Tigers, for my money, could still be a team that emerges strong.
Minnesota has a bullpen that puts out fires with gasoline, including a closer in Brandon Kintzler who pitches with grit and technique rather than overpowering hitters. That said, and despite a couple of glaring blown save outings, his efforts have garnered 17 saves and the faith of manager Paul Molitor. “Brandon has to pitch to his spots, but he can be effective doing that,” said the Twins skipper. In other words, he “pitches to contact” – not exactly the classic flamethrowing bully called in to safely close out a win.
With Kyle Gibson finally giving a first-rate pitching performance and Jose Berrios looking like he has found his confidence on the mound, things are continuing to evolve with the starting rotation. Those two are the recent good news, with both garnering important wins of late. Early season starter Phil Hughes was disappointing in recent starts before he went on the DL, and erstwhile number-four man Hector Santiago has been Mr HR Dinger of late, with 12 home runs in 25 innings during his recent miseries.
Frankly, the starting pitching still has to be regarded as suspect, and the bullpen can be considerably worse. The cause for optimism is that this team finds ways to win despite clear challenges on the mound (former closer Glen Perkins won’t be back to help this year, if ever). And the offense can be darned explosive at times despite inconsistencies – more on that next time.
So back to the good news of Johan, er, Ervin Santana. With a great lead starter who commands confidence from the players behind him and strikes a little fear in the opposition, there are possibilities that good things can continue to happen in the Twin Towns. Or at least, perhaps, on long road trips for the battling squad that plays its home games near the banks of the Mississippi.