- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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NEW YORK -- Minnesota starter Johan Santana is a walking optical illusion. He's not particularly imposing at his program guide dimensions of 6-feet, 206 pounds, or especially menacing with his sad, thoughtful eyes and an expression straight out of the World Series of Poker.
But the farther back you get -- from handshake distance to the heart of Santana's office space 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate -- the more imposing and menacing he becomes. He's an honest-to-goodness equation changer, and how many pitchers can you really say that about these days?
Boston's Curt Schilling, who beat Anaheim in the first round of the playoffs Tuesday, changes the equation, and so does Randy Johnson, who'd scare the daylights out of the opposition if he weren't sitting at home this month. Florida's Josh Beckett was as dominant as they come last October, then went 9-9 and spent half this season struggling with blister problems. That shutdown aura can be fleeting.
Santana, statistically the best pitcher in baseball in 2004, wasn't so perfect or overwhelming Tuesday that he deprived New York of all hope. He allowed so many baserunners, he resembled Cy Stretch more than Cy Young. But he alternately teased, tormented and made the pitches when he needed them. As a result, the American League Division Series between the Yankees and Twins promises to be very interesting.
The Twins, the Small Market Engine that Could, relied on Santana, a nice performance by the bullpen, some great defense and a clutch hit here and there to come away with a 2-0 victory that left the Minnesota clubhouse exhilarated and the Yankees feeling a little antsy.
Perhaps best of the all, Santana only threw 93 pitches, leaving Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire with the option of bringing him back Saturday in Game 4 at the Metrodome.
"I think he's going to pitch the fourth game," Twins catcher Henry Blanco said. "That's why they got him out after seven -- to give him a little breather. I think he's going to be fine."
Last year the Twins beat the Yankees in Game 1 of the Division Series on a Tuesday, then lost their momentum during an off day and dropped three straight. Wednesday, they'll send Brad Radke to the mound against Jon Lieber in an effort to take control of the series heading back to Minnesota.
"Last year the mystique here was big," center fielder Torii Hunter said. "We were like, 'Wow, Yankee Stadium. Playoff time. Babe Ruth and all those guys.' But that's over with. I'm not saying we're the better team. But we're older now. Maybe not veterans, but we're more mature."
If there were any questions about Santana entering the postseason, they were strictly workload-related. He entered the playoffs with 228 innings pitched this year -- 68 more than his previous high with Houston's Class A Michigan affiliate in the Midwest League in 1999.
But fatigue certainly doesn't appear to be a problem, given that it's been five months since anybody made solid contact off him. Santana pitched at least seven innings in 18 of his last 22 regular-season starts. During that stretch, he went 18-2 with a 1.36 ERA, 204 strikeouts and 31 walks, and 80 hits allowed in 159 1/3 innings. The numbers are beyond scary.
The Yankees, who ranked second in the majors to San Francisco (or rather, Barry Bonds) with 670 walks this season, came out hacking. Derek Jeter led off the bottom of the first by swinging at the first pitch and flied out to center. Alex Rodriguez swung at the first pitch and beat out an infield hit to second base.
Five of the first eight New York hitters swung at the first pitch, and the Yankees mounted threat after threat to varying degrees. But each threat amounted to nothing because of Santana and the Minnesota defense.
Bernie Williams struck out into a double play in the first inning, and the Minnesota infield turned three more. Hunter, a winner of three straight Gold Gloves, threw out Jorge Posada at the plate in the second inning and leaped to grab an A-Rod drive before it hit the top of the wall in the eighth.
"I've been knocked out a couple of times, and once that happens, you really don't worry about hitting the wall anymore," Hunter said. "If it didn't go out, I was going to catch it."
The consensus in the Minnesota clubhouse was that Santana left his Grade A changeup at home. The cold weather might have been a factor; it was 52 degrees at gametime, and Santana struggled to maintain the proper feel on his "out" pitch.
"It was cold out there," Santana said. "Plus, it takes a lot of time between innings, and it was tough to stay loose and stay in the game. But I was able to battle with it and get the pitches I needed."
The Twins had a little karma on their side as well. Right fielder Jacque Jones was iffy after going home to California to attend the funeral of his father, Hardy, who died last week of pancreatic and liver cancer. But Jones talked to Hunter on the bus on the way to the park, and told him he was going to play for his dad.
With the Twins clinging to a 1-0 lead in the sixth, Jones got hold of a high-and-away fastball from Mike Mussina and sent it over the left field fence. It was a big run and an emotional uplift for the Twins all at once.
"He has a pretty big heart," Gardenhire said of Jones. "We know that he's going through a lot right now, but I think a lot of guys on the team expected to see him do something special tonight."
Jones tapped his chest and pointed skyward in tribute to his father as he crossed home plate, then encountered a barrage of high-fives upon returning to the dugout.
"I know my dad is watching me like he always has, even when he was here with us," Jones said. "I know he's excited, and I'm excited."
Amid the din of the Minnesota clubhouse, they were all excited, and they had a right to be. The Twins are up 1-0, playing what Hunter calls the brand of "small ball" they feel comfortable with, and they're assured of at least a split heading back to Minnesota. They have to like that equation.
Jerry Crasnick is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. He can be reached via e-mail.