Paul Molitor visited Ervin Santana on the mound with two outs in the seventh inning and his starting pitcher sitting at 83 pitches.
The score was tied 1-1. The Kansas City Royals had a runner on second base. Santana had thrown six consecutive balls earlier in the inning. For the first time all game, he found himself in a tense situation.
Molitor wanted to look Santana in the eyes, see how he felt. He expected an honest answer as the entire Twins infield gathered around pitcher and manager on the mound.
“He doesn’t try to fool you,” Molitor said. “You know where he’s at.”
Molitor had lefty reliever Taylor Rogers warmed up in the bullpen with Kansas City lefthanded hitter Brandon Moss coming to the plate.
Santana wanted to stay in the game. He told Molitor twice. His answer came without any hesitation.
“I’m always honest,” Santana said. “If I don’t feel fine, I will tell him I don’t feel fine.”
Santana was more than fine in his first start of the 2017 season. And he rewarded his manager’s faith in the biggest moment of his outing. Santana struck out Moss on an 84-miles-per-hour slider, the third consecutive strikeout that inning for Santana.
The Twins responded with six runs in the bottom of the inning to turn a close game into a 7-1 victory Monday on Opening Day at Target Field.
Santana allowed only two hits to become the first Twins pitcher to win on Opening Day since Livan Hernandez in 2008. The at-bat by Moss on what proved to be Santana’s final batter was a “momentum changer,” Molitor said.
“I looked him in the eye and got a pretty good feel about how he felt about the matchup,” Molitor said. “We went ahead and gave it a shot. Sometimes those things don’t work out.”
This is what competent pitching looks like. And what trust in the starting pitcher looks like.
The Twins starting staff hovered between slapstick and disastrous last season. Expectations aren’t much different this season.
Except for Santana. He gives the Twins a fighting chance every time he takes the mound.
As a group, Twins starters ranked last in major league baseball in earned-run average last season at 5.39. That number would have looked even more frightening if not for Santana’s 3.38 ERA, the second lowest in his 12-year career.
Santana’s effectiveness comes from mixing pitches to keep hitters off-balance.
“He just knows how to pitch,” Joe Mauer said. “His slider obviously is pretty tough. He was pretty good today with all his pitches.”
Santana showed off his entire repertoire. He retired nine batters in a row at one point and made only one costly mistake, which Mike Moustakas pounded for a solo home run in the fourth inning.
Other than that, Santana was in total control.
“Everything was very good: changeup, slider, two-seam, four-seam,” he said. “I had my mentality of just me and [catcher Jason] Castro, nothing else. Don’t worry about anything else.”
Molitor gave the perfect description of Santana’s performance: economical.
“That’s what makes him tough is his ability to command all of his different pitches,” Castro said. “He throws his whole mix at you, and he was able to do that today.”
Now comes the interesting part. The Twins have many questions behind Santana in the rotation. The organization’s inability to develop quality starting pitching doomed previous seasons and necessitated a front office overhaul.
Dramatic improvement in one season seems unlikely. Building a legitimate starting staff will require time, creativity and savvy personnel decisions.
It was nice to see competent starting pitching on Day 1, though. Not even a whiff of trouble seemed to bother Santana. He looked his manager in the eye and said he wanted to finish the deal.
That had to be music to Molitor’s ears.