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Twins' Game 1 starter never in doubt

Twins' Game 1 starter never in doubt

MINNEAPOLIS -- It was a question causing a few strange looks on the faces of respective Minnesota position players when posed to them Monday morning at the Metrodome.

Maybe they were being a bit more guarded with Tuesday's American League Division Series opener against Oakland on the horizon. Then again, maybe there wasn't a definitive answer to be offered.

After all, opposing hitters from the AL and the National League during Interleague Play haven't figured out how to hit Johan Santana when given the chance over the past three years. So, why should Santana's teammates know any different?

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Minnesota's hitters responded cautiously, not wanting to give any extra advice to Oakland's offense where Santana was concerned.

"I would just say I wouldn't want to be an opposing hitter," said Minnesota outfielder Lew Ford with a smile. "He's the best pitcher in baseball this year, and, I think, the last three years. It wouldn't be fun going up against him."

"Fortunately, I don't have to do that," continued Minnesota outfielder Michael Cuddyer of how to hit Santana, adding he's never even faced the Twins' ace during Spring Training intrasquad games. "If I was an opposing hitter, I know it would be a really tough thing to do."

"Just bunt," Minnesota center fielder Torii Hunter added with a grin. "I've watched him from center field. I'm like the second catcher and I see his ball. When he's on, you can't hit him."

Ford, Cuddyer and Hunter really didn't need to protect the trade secrets where the AL Cy Young Award frontrunner is concerned. Exhaustive scouting reports from teams around baseball barely have been able to slow down the talented left-hander in the past, let alone stop him.

Greg Walker, who as the White Sox hitting coach worked with the Major League leaders in home runs and the AL's top offense with runners in scoring position in 2006, has watched Santana's dominance far too frequently over the past three years. Santana's 9-1 record against the South Siders caused the White Sox to devise a plan for one particular game last year, where they simply went to the plate trying not to strike out.

Ultimately, there's only one surefire way to beat Santana.

"You need to score one run and have your pitcher throw a shutout," Walker said.

With Santana winning the only head-to-head matchup this season, Oakland hasn't faced Santana nearly as much as Minnesota's opponents in the AL Central. Santana worked eight innings, yielding one run on two hits, while striking out nine A's and not walking a hitter. It was just another day at the office for Santana, who tied New York's Chien-Ming Wang for the Major League lead with 19 victories, while leading all of baseball in ERA (2.77) and strikeouts (245).

Santana has looked slightly less than supernatural over his last three starts and looked more like just a very good pitcher, allowing seven earned runs on 20 hits over 21 innings, with 15 strikeouts. But with six days off in between his last regular-season effort and the playoff opener, Santana should be rested and ready to face the A's.

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Up until Sunday at somewhere around 5 p.m. CT, Santana and the Twins thought it would be the Yankees' potent attack on the docket at Yankee Stadium. Santana never really broke down tape or scouting reports in regard to New York, but ultimately believes it's more about his preparation than the skill level of the opposing team.

"If something is not working, we will figure it out as the game goes," said Santana, who is 1-1 with a 3.57 ERA over six ALDS appearances, on Monday. "But I'm going to get in my game and not try to get in their game. I'm going to stay aggressive and do the things I know how to do. I'm not going to do anything different.

"I know New York has a great lineup and they are all All-Stars, but at the same time, I know what to do. I'm going to be the one who has the ball in my hand. Other than that, if I face Oakland, New York or Kansas City, it's all the same because I have to be on top of my game."

Judging by his past efforts at the Metrodome, Santana and the Twins have a pretty good chance for success Tuesday. The Twins have won 23 straight at home with Santana on the mound, and Santana has won 16 straight decisions at the Metrodome -- dating back to Aug. 6, 2005.

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So, as the Twins were celebrating their division title with the throng of euphoric fans who hung around the Metrodome on Sunday to watch the Royals sweep the Tigers, they also were celebrating the chance for Santana to start in Game 1 and Game 5, if necessary, in front of the home faithful. Basically, those starts could leave Minnesota with one more game to win in the remaining four.

"That's why we were so excited to win the division," Cuddyer said. "It's not because of who we were playing. It was because we got the home field, and we have Johan here twice if we need him. That's why yesterday was such a big day for us."

Of course, the A's certainly aren't conceding anything to Santana or the Twins, throwing Barry Zito, their own left-handed ace, in the series opener. Santana and Zito are similar pitchers, although Santana's fastball tops out a little higher and his changeup currently is considered the best in baseball.

Beating Santana at home remains nearly impossible, as he finished 12-0 in 2006. Zito's 10-3 road record this season, though, indicates a pretty good pitcher's battle. So, the question for Tuesday might not be how to approach Santana but instead which offense gives its ace just enough support to win.

"We just have to go out there, be patient and be ready, because he's going to be ready," said Hunter of Zito.

"It won't be easy, no matter what," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire added. "I don't think there's any secret to hitting Zito. You just have to get lucky -- just as they have to do the same with Johan."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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