Game 1: Johan Santana vs. Mike Mussina

Updated: October 5, 2004, 11:02 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Johan Santana's left arm has become one of baseball's most prized possessions.

So when he walked up to the podium Monday to discuss starting the Minnesota Twins' playoff opener against the New York Yankees, manager Ron Gardenhire warned him not to take unnecessary risks.

Johan Santana

Mike Mussina

"Open the mike with your right hand, son," Gardenhire said.

More than anyone else, the 25-year-old Venezuelan is the key to the Twins' chances of beating the New York Yankees in the best-of-five first round of the playoffs. After going 20-6 and leading the AL with a 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts, Santana will start Game 1 on Tuesday night against Mike Mussina in a rematch of last year's opener.

"He's a modern-day Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson," Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield said.

Santana is 13-0 in 15 starts since the All-Star break, compiling a 1.21 ERA.

"Sandy Koufax, another left-hander, used to put up numbers like that," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "Those numbers don't exist anymore."

New York posted some big numbers, too, going a league-leading 101-61 and tying the Chicago White Sox for the most homers in the majors at 242, a Yankees record.

But in the Bronx, the only number that really matters is 11 -- the total of postseason wins needed for a World Series title. New York hasn't won one since 2000, more of an eternity for owner George Steinbrenner than Boston's 86-year drought is for long-suffering Red Sox fans.

The Boss issued another of his statements Monday, and even he is voicing concern over his $180 million All-Star collection.

"I'm just hopeful -- hopeful that the pitching is OK and that we are playing championship baseball," Steinbrenner said. "I am hopeful for New York, and I want to give New York a championship."

New York's starters had a 4.82 ERA this season, sixth among the 14 AL teams, while Minnesota was first at 4.08, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Jon Lieber, who started the season as the Yankees' fifth starter, will open Game 2 on Wednesday against Brad Radke. Orlando Hernandez, plagued by what he calls "dead arm," doesn't know whether he'll be able to start Game 3 on Friday at the Metrodome against Carlos Silva. Torre hasn't decided whether he'd replace him with Kevin Brown, recovering from a broken left hand, or Javier Vazquez, who has one win in nine starts since Aug. 6.

Because of that, Jason Giambi was dropped from the roster.

"Everybody keeps saying the Yankees really struggled this year," Gardenhire said. "I wish we would have won a hundred games and struggled."

Coming off their sixth AL pennant in eight years, the Yankees won their seventh straight AL East title and went 4-2 against the Twins. Meanwhile, Minnesota won its third consecutive Central title since baseball's failed effort to eliminate the team in contraction.

The Twins' opening-day payroll of $54 million was less than one-third of New York's, but Minnesota went 92-70, primarily because the Twins allowed the fewest runs in the AL (715).

Santana's success bred confidence. Teammates couldn't believe what he was doing on the mound, spinning pitches past batters like some cartoon character.

"Every time the guy swings, the ball ducks," Torii Hunter said. "It's pretty impressive."

Left unprotected by Houston in the 1999 winter meeting draft, Santana was taken by Florida, then dealt to Minnesota the same day for pitcher Jared Camp and cash. He didn't stick in the majors for good until 2002, and last year went 12-3 to lead the league in winning percentage.

Everything fell into place for him on June 9. He was just 2-4 in 12 starts before beating the New York Mets 5-3 that night, getting out of a seventh-inning, bases-loaded jam by striking out Mike Cameron and Gerald Williams.

"From there, everything was much better," said Santana, who has a $1.6 million salary and is eligible for free agency after 2006. "I feel relaxed and everything was, like, perfect."

In last year's opener, a 3-1 win by the Twins over Mussina, Santana lasted only four innings, his day shortened by a cramp. He had offseason surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow and since has refined his mechanics and driven batters, well, batty.

"I want to make sure that when I throw my slider or my changeup, they look the same as the fastball," he said. "I think that's the difference."

Santana hasn't allowed a homer in seven starts since Aug. 23, which should make him especially potent against New York's hit-or-miss offense. While New York set a big league record with 61 come-from-behind wins, 43.4 percent of the Yankees' runs scored on homers -- the fourth-highest percentage in the majors, according to Elias.

Alex Rodriguez, embarking on his first postseason with the Yankees, realizes the difficulty of the task.

"You've got a 94-mile-an hour-fastball. He likes it right up in the zone," A-Rod said. "He likes the changeup down in the zone. The equalizer for him has been the little slider-cutter."

The Twins are happy Santana's on their side. After winning last year's opener, Minnesota lost three in a row to New York.

"This year will be different," Hunter said. "I know it will."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press