Three extras from an exciting game with a thrilling finish for the Twins:
It wasn’t particularly difficult, Ervin Santana said, to face the Astros for a second time in a week.
Well, of course not. They’re in the American League West.
Santana allowed only one run over eight innings Saturday night and tied his career-high by striking out 11 — all of which extended a growing, of odd, pattern. Santana — who spent most of his career with the Angels in the AL West, has looked like an All-Star against his old division, but he’s been torched by everyone else.
Santana is now 4-4 in his Twins career, and that record illustrates the pattern: He’s now 4-0 against the AL West, and 0-4 against everyone else. It’s not just the record, either: the 32-year-old Dominican owns a 1.47 ERA in five starts against that division, with five walks, 30 strikeouts and only one home run allowed.
Against non-West teams? The ERA jumps to 8.42, with 10 homers allowed, 19 walks and just 26 strikeouts in seven starts.
That’s a bizarre pattern, and perhaps a worrisome one, considering the Twins have only one series remaining against the West, against the Angels on the next homestand.
As for Saturday’s game, Santana was brilliant again. He allowed a run in the fifth inning on a single by Marwin Gonzalez and a double by rookie Preston Tucker, but no other Astro reached third base in his eight innings.
The biggest challenge for him? Trying to ignore Hank Conger, who caught Santana while both were with the Angels, and Evan Gattis, who did the same last season in Atlanta. “It’s different because if I look into their eyes, I’m going to laugh,” Santana said. “Because I know them for a long time. So I try not to look at them.”
Byron Buxton made the game-saving catch of Jose Altuve’s line drive to end the game, but Aaron Hicks made a ninth-inning catch that was just as important. After Jed Lowrie led off the ninth with an opposite-field home run to cut the Twins’ lead to 3-2, Carlos Gomez smacked a fastball from Kevin Jepsen into right field, a low line drive. Hicks moved into position, made the catch — then crumpled to the ground.
“Right when he hit the ball, I saw it well. But right toward the end is when it started going into the lights,” Hicks said of the catch. “I put my glove where I remembered it was at, and it went in.”
Hicks said he was excited to be part of the young, fast outfield, with Eddie Rosario and Buxton alongside him. “It’s fun for all of us to be out there together,” said Hicks, at 25 years old the veteran of the bunch. “It’s definitely something that’s pretty sweet, to have three young guys out there playing baseball, having fun.”
Jepsen said he was shocked by Lowrie’s home run, an opposite-field golf shot that the left-handed hitter somehow lifted into the Crawford boxes in left field.
“It was not something I expected, especially [on the] second pitch of the inning,” Jepsen said. “He takes first-pitch fastball, and then to go oppo on a curveball …”
Jepsen shook his head at the thought. “But he’s a good hitter. It becomes a one-run game and I’ve got to bear down.”
He didn’t have his usual efficiency, allowing a single to Gonzalez and walks to Jake Marisnick and George Springer, but Molitor said he never considered pulling Jepsen. “It was his game,” the manager said, and he ended it with the Jose Altuve line drive to Buxton. That’s the second time in a week Jepsen has faced Altuve, the reigning AL batting champion, with game at stake and runners on base, and both times, he escaped.
The Springer at-bat was a seven-pitch ordeal, impressive on the second-year hitter’s part considering he had struck out all four of his previous at-bats Saturday. But Jepsen said he wasn’t surprised by that.
“Every hitter bears down [late], they’re not up there free-hacking like maybe earlier in the game,” he said. “At that point, I need an out. I can’t afford a base hit. I put the winning run at second base, which is not ideal. But fortunately, it worked out.”
It did, for his sixth save with the Twins in six chances. And by far his most difficult one.
“Sometimes they go easy,” he said, “and sometimes they don’t.”