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On days he isn't pitching, Twins lefthander Johan Santana can often be found in the outfield during Minnesota's batting practice, gleefully shagging fly balls. Growing up in the small Venezuelan town of Tovar, Merida, Santana played centerfield in local leagues and idolized major league outfielders Rickey Henderson and Ken Griffey Jr. Even now the 25-year-old southpaw gets a thrill from imitating them the way he did as a teen. "Johan likes to get out there and play out some childhood dreams," says Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson, "but we know where he belongs."
Though he first pitched in an organized game in his mid-teens, Santana has emerged as one of the American League's top starters, and he's a big reason why the Twins had a seven-game lead over the Indians in the AL Central at week's end. Santana had a rocky April and May following off-season surgery on his left elbow, but over the last three months he has been the most dominant pitcher in baseball. In 14 starts since June 3 Santana was 11--2 with a 1.73 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 104 1/3 innings. Through Sunday he led the league in strikeouts (196) and opponents' batting average (.205) and was second in ERA (3.23).
"[ Santana] reminds me of myself when I was younger," Red Sox righthander Pedro Martinez said after being outpitched on Aug. 1 by Santana, who struck out 12 in a 4--3 win over Boston. "His stuff is probably a little bit better than mine was at that age."
Santana didn't become a full-time big league starter until July 2003 when a spot in the Twins' rotation opened up after righthander Joe Mays was sent to the bullpen before going down with a season-ending elbow injury. Santana blossomed in his new role, going 8--2 with a 3.22 ERA, but he left Minnesota's first playoff game last year with leg cramps after just four innings and had a 7.04 ERA in two postseason games.
Even at his best, however, Santana was an unpolished power pitcher who struggled with his control. (He had 96 walks and 21 wild pitches in 2002 and '03 combined.) "I used to be hyper, throw crazy and not think about what I wanted to do with each pitch," says Santana, who didn't focus on pitching as a teen until a major league scout urged him to do so after observing his arm strength in the outfield. "Now I have a better understanding of what it is to be a major league pitcher."
With his improved control Santana has been nearly unhittable. From June 15 to Aug. 1 he had 10 straight starts in which he allowed no more than four hits and two runs, an unprecedented feat in the postexpansion era.
Santana, who rarely watches game tapes and pays little attention to scouting reports, baffles hitters with a fluttering changeup--a pitch that Tigers manager Alan Trammell calls "arguably the best in the league." His change is indistinguishable from his fastball because he throws it with the same arm speed and angle but a different grip. "He's the only guy I know who at times has a 20-mile-per-hour differential between his fastball and his changeup," said Mariners second baseman Bret Boone. "Usually guys have a 10-mile-per-hour difference."
As he has evolved into the Twins' best pitcher, Santana has also become one of the Twin Cities' most popular athletes. In his four home starts since the All-Star break, attendance at the Metrodome has spiked by an average of 4,347 over the average attendance of the other games in the series against the same opponents. "It's been exciting," says Santana. "I hear stories from back home in Venezuela of everyone watching Twins games I'm pitching in. It's been a little crazy, but hopefully all of this is just a beginning."