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Santana rusty in loss to Blue Jays

Santana rusty in loss to Blue Jays

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TORONTO -- It was billed as the pitching matchup between the two frontrunners for the American League Cy Young Award with the Twins' Johan Santana facing off against the Blue Jays' Roy Halladay.

If it indeed was a preview of the award race, then give the first point to Halladay.

In the Opening Day duel, it was Toronto's right-hander who came out looking the sharpest as the Twins struggled to figure him out in their 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.

"Halladay really threw the ball well," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He was tough. He was locating the ball in and out. Cutting it and sinking it, doing what we've seen him do many times."

And though Halladay took the opportunity to shine in the matchup, it was a bit of a different story for Santana. In an outing that was as uncharacteristic as they come for the southpaw, Santana allowed four runs on 10 hits over 5 2/3 innings. He walked one and struck out only three.

While the diminished strikeout numbers may surprise many, it was how hard Santana was hit in the first game of the season that came as a real shock. After talking all spring of how much more prepared he felt coming into this season, Santana didn't quite hold the hitters in check like he has been known to do. To reflect just how large of a number 10 hits is for Santana, last season he allowed a total of just 28 hits in the entire month of April over five starts.

It may have been a rough outing for Santana, but he felt it was more to the credit of the Blue Jay hitters than of problems with his own pitches.

"These guys have some swings where they put the ball into play," Santana said. "When you do that, you've got a pretty good chance to do some damage. And that's what happened. I feel like I threw some pretty good pitches, but they just put some good swings on the ball."

Santana had been able to battle well through the first three innings but fell apart in the fourth. He allowed two straight hits to lead off the inning before Blue Jays designated hitter Shea Hillenbrand hit a sacrifice fly to center to knot the game up at 1. The next batter, catcher Bengie Molina, blasted a 401-foot shot over the left-field wall to score two and give Toronto a 3-1 lead.

"He's always hard to hit -- always," Molina said, despite having a career .478 average against Santana. "I think we got a couple mistakes up in the zone and he paid for it, but he's very hard every time out. It's not easy to beat a guy like that."

While it was a rough outing for Santana, he didn't get much help early from the newly rebuilt Twins offense, either. Halladay effectively shut down the club's bats for five innings after the Twins scored a run in the first on a sacrifice fly by designated hitter Rondell White. Minnesota tallied only two hits over the stretch. Halladay threw a total of 7 2/3 innings, allowing three runs on five hits.

"He's one of the best in the game," White said of Halladay. "We knew we had to battle when we came in. We just fell short. We had a chance to score more runs against him, but he found a way to shut us down just enough."

The Twins did manage to get to Halladay a little bit when they began a comeback in the seventh inning. Tony Batista hit his first home run of the season, a towering shot to left that put the Twins within reach. Shannon Stewart added his first long ball of the season in the eighth to make it a 4-3 game. But the run ended in the bottom of the eighth, when Jesse Crain gave up a two-run homer to Blue Jays right fielder Alex Rios to put the Blue Jays up, 6-3.

It may not have been the outcome that the Twins had hoped for, but there were some positive signs to be taken out of the loss. Most notably, it was the re-emergence of Stewart.

From his leadoff single in the first that set up the team's first run to the home run late in the game, Stewart was the lone bright light in an offense that otherwise sputtered to only five hits. He accounted for over half of the hits as he finished the game at 3-for-4. The home run in the eighth marked his first in 269 at-bats dating all the way back to last June 25, when he homered in a game against Milwaukee.

An injury-plagued 2005 season limited Stewart's ability to help drive the Twins' offense, and even though it didn't translate into a win on Tuesday, center fielder Torii Hunter believes that the performance should be taken as a good first sign that there could be improvements to the offense. It didn't come on a day against a tough pitcher like Halladay, but Hunter believes a change is coming.

"Everybody knows if Shannon stays healthy, he can get you two or three hits to get [the offense] going," Hunter said. "He's an igniter and we need him in the lineup. If he stays healthy, we can do a lot."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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