Santana Unanimous Pick for AL Cy Young

Thursday, November 11th 2004, 7:57 pm
By: News On 6

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ Johan Santana's season started slowly, with the scars on his left elbow still fresh from surgery and his fastballs sailing outside the strike zone. When the Minnesota Twins' left-hander finally found his groove in early June, opposing batters were in big trouble. Santana was simply spectacular in his last 22 starts, a span of dominance that made the 25-year-old pitcher a unanimous choice Thursday for the AL Cy Young Award _ and the first winner from his native Venezuela.

``He became almost unhittable,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. ``He made good hitters look bad.''

After having bone chips removed from his elbow, Santana struggled through the spring as he began his first season as a full-time member of Minnesota's rotation. Before beating the New York Mets at the Metrodome on June 9, Santana was just 2-4 with a 5.51 ERA in 12 outings _ hardly the promise he showed in spot starts and stretches as an injury fill-in the previous two years.

But that night, everything clicked. He threw his fastball where he wanted it, which set up his wicked changeup. The slider started to come around, too. The ERA began to plummet and his strikeout total soared.

``Just make sure that you get better and better as the season goes,'' was how Santana explained his strategy.

Boy, did he. By finishing 20-6 with a league-leading 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts, Santana pitched the Twins to their third straight division title. He beat the Yankees in the opener of their first-round playoff series and, throwing on three days' rest, left Game 4 with a 5-1 lead before New York rallied against the bullpen.

After the All-Star break, Santana went 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA in 15 starts.

``We thought he was going to be pretty special,'' Gardenhire said.

For his efforts, Santana received all 28 first-place votes in balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America and became the first unanimous Cy Young winner in the AL since Boston's Pedro Martinez in 2000. Santana is the 18th unanimous winner overall.

Curt Schilling, 21-6 with a 3.26 ERA in his first season with the Red Sox, received 27 second-place votes and one third for 82 points. Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, who led the majors with a career-high 53 saves, received the other second-place vote and 24 thirds for 27 points.

Toward the end of the season, Schilling gave Santana his vote.

``For me it has been an honor to be in this race,'' Santana said. ``It's an honor for me to hear the things that he said about me. I really appreciate it.''

Voting was conducted before the start of the postseason, when Schilling beat the Yankees in Game 6 of the AL championship series and St. Louis in Game 2 of the World Series with a dislocated ankle tendon held together by sutures. The Red Sox swept the Cardinals to win the Series for the first time since 1918.

``It was amazing,'' Santana said. ``To me, he was just a hero. He did great things for Boston and for baseball. That's a role model for a young baseball player to follow.''

Schilling, who led the major leagues in victories, has never won a Cy Young Award. This was his third runner-up finish, tying former teammate Randy Johnson, a five-time winner, and 1957 winner Warren Spahn for the most second-place finishes.

As joyous fans celebrated by honking car horns in Caracas, Santana sounded overwhelmed on a conference call with reporters. He traveled in the morning from his hometown of Tovar Merida to the capital city, where the news was all over town.

``It's a big thing,'' Santana said. ``I feel very welcome here. People are forgetting everything that's going on. People are enjoying sports right now ... I want people to be happy and feel free about all the things that we can do right now in this country, because we're such a beautiful country.''