Ervin Santana Shocked the Yankees 12 Years Ago. Can He Do It Again?

Ervin Santana Shocked the Yankees 12 Years Ago. Can He Do It Again?

“Yeah, they were good,” Santana said Monday. “But no nerves at all. Just try not to think about it.”


Santana pitching for the Los Angeles Angels during an A.L.D.S. victory over the Yankees in 2005, his rookie season.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

That would be sound advice for his current teammates. The Twins were so bad last season that they chose first in the draft this past June. Now they are the first team ever to reach the playoffs after losing at least 100 games in the previous season — but to extend their fun, they must successfully escape the Bronx, where they are 14-45 since 2002.

That record includes four flops in division series, most recently in 2010, and a three-game sweep last month. Santana allowed two runs (one on an Aaron Judge homer) over five and two-thirds innings to lose the opener, 2-1, on Sept. 18, and the Yankees won the next two games handily. Santana is 0-5 at the new Yankee Stadium, with a 6.43 E.R.A.

“The difference is it’s October, and it’s one game,” Twins Manager Paul Molitor said. “It’s going to be a little bit more electric than what we even saw a couple of weeks ago. Emotion is a good thing.”

The Twins believe Santana can harness it. He has experienced plenty since that first postseason win: three more teams, two All-Star appearances and one no-hitter, as well as a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs two years ago. His nickname is Magic, after Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Santana tags many Twitter posts with #SMELLBASEBALL, which he said reflects his passion for the game. On Monday, he found an inspirational message that fit the Twins’ challenge: a quotation from David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist,” Santana wrote in the post, adding a GIF of the 1980 United States hockey team celebrating its Olympic triumph over the Soviet team.

“Just trying to be positive and create good things for me and our team,” Santana said.

The Twins led the A.L. in runs scored after the All-Star break, helped by a few September blowouts over also-rans. They have a balanced offense, including seven hitters with at least 69 R.B.I. (the Yankees have just three). But they cannot expect to score many runs off Luis Severino and the Yankees’ deep, powerful bullpen.

“When you have a dominant bullpen,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said, “you go to them early.”


Twins players after falling to the Yankees, three games to one, in a division series in 2004.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The Twins’ best hope is Santana, who used his fastballs, sliders and changeups to go 16-8 this season with a 3.28 E.R.A. and three shutouts. They could back up him up with the young starter Jose Berrios and relievers Trevor Hildenberger, Taylor Rogers and Matt Belisle. But in the brief history of the wild-card game, starters have made an overwhelming difference.

Since baseball introduced this format in 2012, half of the wild-card games have been won by starters who allowed no runs, and all of those starters were playing on the road: Tampa Bay’s Alex Cobb in Cleveland (2013); San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner in Pittsburgh (2014) and at Citi Field (2016); the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta in Pittsburgh (2015); and Houston’s Dallas Keuchel in the Bronx (2015).

That is why Tuesday is so fraught with danger for the Yankees. They led the A.L. in home runs, scored more runs than the Twins and had a much better E.R.A. The teams had such different expectations midseason that in late July, when the Yankees needed a veteran starting pitcher, Minnesota sent them Jaime Garcia for prospects.

But the Twins recovered, roaring through August and hanging on to claim the final playoff spot in a league that had 10 teams with losing records. If this were a series, they would be in more trouble. For one game, though, victory is plausible — even in the Bronx in October.

The Twins actually won their playoff openers at the old Yankee Stadium in 2003 and 2004, both times with a starter named Santana allowing no runs. Back then, it was Johan Santana — no relation to Ervin, and a better pitcher. But as omens go, the Twins might as well take it.

They have another in this Santana, the one who helped eliminate the Yankees in his playoff debut. Each batter he faced that night has retired or moved on, but Santana, now 34, will try to summon the same old magic.

“If you can go out and do that as a rookie, and with all the other résumé he’s got under him since 2005, I feel very confident in who we’re running out there,” said Allen, the pitching coach. “He’s been on that big stage, he’s had the lights on him, and he knows what he’s going to do. I couldn’t ask for a better fit.”

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