ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. - Johan Santana could win another Cy Young Award this year, but Twins manager Ron Gardenhire isn't going to let that chance for individual glory alter the team's approach to the pennant race.
That was never more apparent than Tuesday night, when the Twins pulled Santana after 95 pitches, even though he'd given up only two hits and was three outs from the team's first complete-game shutout of the year.
Matt Guerrier came on to pitch the ninth inning, wrapping up an 8-0 victory over the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tropicana Field.
With their 14th consecutive victory over Tampa Bay, the Twins moved 1½ games ahead of the Chicago White Sox -- who lost 1-0 to Boston on Tuesday night -- for the American League wild card lead.
Santana (17-5) became the majors' first 17-game winner, giving up one walk and striking out 12.
"Put him out there for the ninth and he gets the all-important shutout, and he gets a line drive off his kneecap -- then you can answer to Mr. Pohlad so I won't have to," Gardenhire said. "I think he did fine and gave us everything we needed. And we'll have him start again in five days."
Santana's next start will come Sunday vs. Detroit, which lost to Seattle 4-3 and had its AL Central lead over the Twins shrink to four games.
While the blister on his left middle finger hasn't been a problem of late, Santana said he felt some soreness in his left hip Tuesday.
He said it was particularly hard to keep loose with the Twins making him wait for several minutes as they scored three runs in the seventh and two in the eighth to break open the game.
"At the same time, it's good to have that -- to see the guys scoring some runs," Santana said. "I mean, lately we haven't had that. ... So hopefully this will be the beginning to start the offense again and put everything together."
The Twins' struggles against opposing starting pitchers continued. Tampa Bay's Jae Seo (1-6) held them to three runs (one earned) in six innings. Opposing starters have posted a 1.64 ERA against the Twins in their past nine games.
This time, they squandered two scoring chances in the first three innings after putting a runner on third base with two outs.
The game turned on a baserunning play by Michael Cuddyer in the fourth. After a leadoff double, he got trapped in a rundown between second and third on a sharp comebacker to the mound by Justin Morneau.
But after forcing an extra throw, Cuddyer knocked the ball from third baseman B.J. Upton's hand and reached third safely. Cuddyer scored when left fielder Carl Crawford made Tampa Bay's second error of the inning, overthrowing home plate after catching a fly ball from Torii Hunter.
Santana now has the American League lead in victories, ERA (2.84) and strikeouts (219). Toronto's Roy Halladay, Santana's closest Cy Young competitor, has four complete games, but he remained stuck on 16 victories after taking a no-decision Tuesday.
Asked if he would have liked to finish Tuesday's game, Santana said: "I wanted to, but at the same time we still have some games to go. And I have to pitch on Sunday."