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Johan Santana and the duel at the Dome

Posted by David Bohlander , 04 January 2018 · 2,630 views

johan santana pedro martinez metrodome
All the Hall of Fame ballots are postmarked. More than 100 have been revealed. Of those, only three voters have checked the name of the greatest pitcher I’ve ever regularly watched. Johan Santana’s time on the writers’ ballot looks to be short and unsuccessful.
Others have written compelling and thorough articles about Santana’s case. I’m mostly sad that he’s only 38 and we’re already having this discussion. I want to think about Santana at the height of his powers. I want to remember a game that still resonates with me more than a dozen years later.
It’s 2004. The Twins have won the Central the past two years and they’re in first place now. It’s Aug.1 and their lead is five games over the White Sox.
I’d graduated from college that spring and I’m lamenting the fact that I’m jobless, hours away from the Metrodome and with no money for a ticket anyway. Johan Santana is facing Pedro Martinez today.
But I do have cable television and it’s connected to my fiancée’s 13-inch TV/VCR combo. It’s the only TV we have in the apartment we rented when I was still optimistic about finding a decent job near Morris, Minnesota. I’d be back at home living with my dad in a matter of weeks.
But Santana was pitching this afternoon, so this afternoon things look bright.
After getting Johnny Damon to ground out and striking Mark Bellhorn, Orlando Cabrera hit a home run in the first.
Cabrera hadn’t been all that good that year. But Cabrera had just become a member of the Red Sox. Maybe the change of scenery would do him good. (It did. Cabrera hit .294/.320/.465 for the Red Sox that year after hitting .246/.298/.336 for the Expos.)
Cabrera started for the Red Sox for the first time that day after he and Doug Mientkiewicz joined the Sox earlier in a four-team trade that saw the Twins pick up 19-year-old minor-league pitcher Justin Jones from the Cubs.
Mientkiewicz’s departure was sad, as he joined A.J Pierzynski and Matt Lawton as players traded away after starting for the 2001 Twins team that sucked me back into baseball fandom.
The Twins had stopped grabbing my attention as the ‘90s often found them mired in last place and found me in a new town with new friends who weren’t all that interested in baseball. But the Twins found new life in 2001, and found me, now away at college, with some friends who gave a damn about a pennant race and with access to cable television.
Cristian Guzman reached on a single in the first but was stranded.
Santana retired three straight in the second, striking out Jason Veritek and Bill Mueller.
Corey Koskie doubled for the Twins in the bottom of the second and then scored on a Matthew LeCroy single. LeCroy was catching that day, with Joe Mauer’s rookie season mostly ruined by injury.
Mauer was the first Twins player I can say I followed from the day he was drafted onward, but Santana was the first player I really saw emerge and become a star.
Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Guzman, Koskie and Mientkiewicz burst onto the national scene in 2001, but as someone who was just paying attention for the first time in years, they felt a little more established. I knew they were young. I knew they were surprising, but they never existed for me as anything other than Twins starters.
But Santana was a reliever in 2001, and by this point in 2004 I’d watched him become the best pitcher in baseball.
Manny Ramirez homered in the second; the Twins were down 2-1.
That was the last hit Santana gave up that day, but while Martinez’s 2004 was not a great year by his standards, the man still hadn’t posted an ERA above 2.89 from 1997 to 2003. Maybe this was it for the Twins.
In the bottom of the sixth, Lew Ford doubled and then scored on a single from Hunter. The game was tied and it felt a little easier to breathe.
Santana struck out Ramirez to lead off the seventh, but then hit Veritek.
Veritek stole second and went to third on a throwing error from LeCroy.
Veritek only stole 25 bases in his career, though 10 of those came in 2004. This game was one of only 16 that LeCroy started at catcher that year. Sixteen runners attempted stolen bases against him in 144 innings in 2004. LeCroy threw out only one. Maybe Veritek knew something.
With Veritek on third, he scored on a sacrifice fly from Kevin Millar. Santana hadn’t given up a hit, but he’d given up a run and the Twins were losing once again.
Martinez finished the seventh with the Red Sox still up 3-2. He was done for the day.
Santana came out for eighth and struck out two, giving him 12 strikeouts for the day, one better than Martinez.
With Martinez gone, the Twins came out swinging. Guzman and Ford hit back-to-back singles to start the inning and then pulled off a double steal.
Justine Morneau hit a sacrifice fly that scored both runners when shortstop Cabrera committed an error. The Twins were up 4-3 and Santana was in line for the win.
First-year but all-star closer Joe Nathan faced only three batters to secure that win. Santana, the best pitcher in baseball, had bested the previous best pitcher in a game that was very much a pitchers’ duel despite the 4-3 score.
He may never get a plaque in Cooperstown, but Santana will be remembered by me, and I’m sure many other baseball fans, as one of the best to ever stand on a pitcher’s mound.

  • Carole Keller, Parker Hageman, jorgenswest and 3 others like this

Carole Keller
Jan 05 2018 09:42 AM
There were so many great-pitched games by Santana in Minnesota. Then he went to the Mets. If only ...
    • David Bohlander likes this

Hey! I was at that game! Nice writeup!

    • nicksaviking, David Bohlander and Hosken Bombo Disco like this
Jan 05 2018 01:50 PM

I like these small scope past reflections. Good stuff David!

    • David Bohlander likes this
JaleelWhite FanClub
Jan 05 2018 04:05 PM

I'm also bummed Santana's stay on the HOF ballot will be short-lived. He's my favorite Twin of all time and I figured he'd be a long shot for the Hall, but I figured he'd get a bit more love nationally.


I'm still holding out hope for a comeback (4th times a charm?).


Not to get too sentimental, but your article really hit home for me.


I live in Omaha now, as I did in 2004. In July of that year, me and a group of friends drove down to Kansas City for fun weekend. Half of us wound up going to a Saturday afternoon Royals game (the other half went to Worlds of Fun - lame! for a bunch of 20-somethings).


Anyways, the Royals were playing the Twins. The SP for Minnesota was none other than Johan Santana. By this time, I had kind of stopped paying attention to major league baseball. I loved it growing up, but after my playing days came to an end in high school, I stopped following the game. So, heading into that afternoon, I had no idea who Santana was and was not a big Twins fan by any means (luckily I missed the contraction-talk years).


Well, Santana was incredible that day. He got the win, went 8 innings, allowing 1 run on only 1 hit, striking out 9, most with the most devastating, coolest looking thing I'd ever seen live at a game before, his changeup. It was amazing to see hitter-after-hitter just flail at the thing as Johan pulled the string. I remember thinking how cool it was to see someone so dominant, so in control. As the game went on, I guess you could say the fever of baseball returned for me.


I returned to Omaha and kept track of Johan and the Twins the rest of the way. It turns out the KC win was the first of an incredible 13 straight for him. He never lost again that season. I remember looking up the day after each 2nd-half start, seeing he won, and loving the feeling of following baseball again.


Well, he'd go on to win the Cy Young that season. I had a new favorite player and a new favorite team to follow.


Thanks for the article.

    • gil4, David Bohlander and Hosken Bombo Disco like this