A unanimous victor for the 2004 award after his dominating 20-win season indicated that Santana's name was the only one worthy for conversation for Cy Young voters. This year as his win total lags behind others, the lefty has been on the fringes of the discussion.
Maybe, until now.
Santana took a two-hit shutout into the ninth inning and struck out 13 during a 5-0 blanking of the White Sox on Saturday. It gave him his 14th victory of the season, but he is 7-2 with a 1.69 ERA since the All-Star break.
"To me, this kid is the best pitcher in baseball right now," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen praised. "He's been the best the last two years."
The game nearly turned rough on Santana in the top of the ninth. Pablo Ozuna led off with a bunt single toward second base that Luis Rivas was unable to pick up barehanded. Tadahito Iguchi followed with a single up the middle past Rivas before Paul Konerko's walk loaded the bases.
Manager Ron Gardenhire called on closer Joe Nathan to end the threat. With nobody out, damage control would normally be the primary objective, but Nathan aimed for better. He impressively struck out Carl Everett, Aaron Rowand and Jermaine Dye in order for his 38th save.
"I wanted to keep them from scoring on Johan as best I could, knowing what's at stake for him being in the Cy Young race," Nathan said. "He could use as many scoreless innings as you could get for him."
Santana needed little assistance keeping Chicago off the scoreboard most of the day. Able to work off a sharp fastball with his usually deadly slider and changeup, he retired the first 13 batters he faced before Rowand's one-out blooped single to left field ended what had been a perfect game.
"He threw every pitch that he wanted for strikes," said third baseman Michael Cuddyer, who hit a solo homer in the seventh inning. "He threw it where he wanted, any count he wanted. As you could tell by some of their swings, he was on today."
The White Sox did not record their next hit until one out in the eighth on Juan Uribe's double down the left-field line.
"Everything was working," Santana said. "I was trying to stay aggressive."
Besides working a rare 11:10 a.m. CT first pitch, there should have been plenty to knock Santana's feng shui out of whack. He was working on seven days of rest because of a cracked middle fingernail and blister that forced him out of his last start at Cleveland after only five lackluster innings. He was originally scheduled to pitch Wednesday before being pushed back.
Clearly, Santana benefited from the extra healing time.
"I felt pretty good. I didn't feel anything at all," Santana said. "I was able to throw all my pitches, and the slider, which had hurt the most."
Meanwhile, Chicago starter Orlando Hernandez (9-9) was forced into deep counts and saw his pitch count balloon into the 70s through just three innings. Minnesota finally pounced in the fourth while sending 10 men to the plate. Justin Morneau's two-run home run and Jason Tyner's two-run triple gave Santana a 4-0 cushion.
With three more starts likely remaining in 2005, Santana will need similar efforts to keep a bid for back-to-back Cy Young Awards alive. Another three victories would make him 17-7, which might be good enough. He already leads the Major Leagues with 220 strikeouts and is second in the American League with a 3.05 ERA.
"Shoot, today's performance has to put him in at least the top three," Nathan said. "Who else would you put there?"
The Angels' Colon is 19-7 but was hit hard in his last start. Garland is 17-9 for the White Sox and Lee is 16-4 for Cleveland. Rivera entered Saturday's contest with 40 saves.
More often than not, 20 wins is the magic number for starting pitchers to be considered. Randy Johnson won the National League Cy Young with 19 wins in 2000 and 17 in 1999. The last non-20-game winner in the AL was Pedro Martinez, who won 18 in 2000.
What could end up costing Santana the most are his own sensational numbers from one season ago and the lack of offensive support he's received this year. In 2004, he was 20-6 with a 2.65 ERA, including 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA after the All-Star break.
Before breaking out today, the Twins lineup scored just five runs over Santana's previous four starts. There were six occasions this season when he allowed two earned runs or less and did not get a win.
"Sometimes, people talk about performances and everything," Santana said. "I've been doing the same thing I've been doing. It hasn't worked out as we wanted as a team. For you to win a game, a lot of things have to go right. It's not just about one guy, one pitcher, one hitter. It's about the team and that's it. There's nothing you can do about it personally."