Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He has been a Star Tribune sports columnist since 1988. His sportswriting credo is twofold: 1. God will provide an angle; 2. The smaller the ball, the better the writing.


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For 4 1/2 years, Johan was best-ever Twins' starter

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: March 31, 2013 - 10:55 AM

The 2006 Twins were 25-33 in early June and then went on a tremendous run. Now, it was mid-September and they were on a 10-game road trip to Cleveland, Boston and Baltimore that would decide if the Twins could continue their pursuit of Detroit in the American League Central.

Tamiko Tetsaya and her prodcution crew from the Tokyo Broadcasting System were in Fenway Park for the Twins-Red Sox series. Tetsaya had been a familiar sight in major league baseball for a number of years, as she put together features for a weekly sports show in Japan.

The Japanese delegation was in the cramped visitors clubhouse at Fenway. One young man in the group had a bag of props that included a mock Japanese sword.

Johan Santana grabbed the sword and went into Samurai-like gyrations toward the Japanese film crew. This wasn't unusual. When Tetsaya was around, Johan was always going to do something to get her laughing.

Brad Radke watched the mischievous Santana and said: "Johan is a superstar, and he could walk around like that, but he's exactly the opposite. He's like a big kid when he gets to the ballpark.''

The Twins had obtained Santana in a trade of Rule 5 draftees in December 1999. He turned 21 the next March and the Twins had to keep him on the big-league roster, or risk putting him on waivers (and if he cleared, offering him back to the Houston Astros for $25,000).

Santana made 30 appearances that included three spot starts as a 2000 rookie. He showed enough that Johan and veteram teammates were puzzled when the Twins sent him to the minors to open the 2001 season. He returned and was in and out of the Twins' rotation and bullpen for two more years.

Through July 5, 2003, the Venezuelan lefty had appeared in 102 games with 26 starts. On July 11, manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson put him in the rotation, and there he stayed for 4 1/2 seasons. He was the Twins' best-ever starter during that run of greatness, winning two Cy Young Awards, twice leading the American League in ERA and three times in strikeouts.

Those ERA numbers were 2.61 in 2004 and 2.77 in 2006, at a time when pitchers still were dealing with the vestiges of baseball's full-blown steroids era.

And remember how we would whine when Gardenhire would persistently remove Santana when he was in the range of 100 pitches? This did not prevent Johan from pitching between 219 innings and 233 2/3 innings (an AL-leading total in 2006) in those four seasons as a full-time starter.

Torii Hunter gets much of the credit as the leader of those clubs that returned the Twins from the oblivion of eight losing seasons (1993-2000) to winning division titles in the next decade. Hunter and Santana were here for the Central titles of 2002-03-04 and 2006. Torii left as a free agent after the 2007 season, and Santana was traded to the New York Mets for quantity rather than quality.

Santana was the most-important element to the Twins' excellence of that era, and also as much of a leader with his personality and competitiveness as Hunter.

Johan was still great in New York in 2008, started having shoulder problems after that, and missed the entire 2011 season following surgery. He came back with one day of brilliance last June, pitching the first no-hitter in the Mets' 51-year-history, but those 134 pitches seemed to do him in.

He wasn't good for the rest of the 2012 season, and now left shoulder again has a tear and he needs more surgery. He turned 34 on March 13. This is the last season of his six-year, $137.5 million contract with the Mets, and the gloomy forecast is that Johan's career is probably over.

Fierce competitor. Fantastic teammate. Dedicated prankster.

And, oh yeah, the changeup. Frankie V.'s was fabulous. Johan's was the best.

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