-- It is hard for Johan Santana to believe it was anything other than fate that brought him to this spot, where he stands on the verge of magnificence. The youth coach in Venezuela who took the glove from the 11-year-old shortstop and moved it to his right hand? The Houston Astros scout who showed up at his door four years later? The subsequent decision to turn him into a pitcher? The bargain bin the Astros tossed him into in 1999, where the Minnesota Twins quickly found him? The Twins' painfully careful handling of him?
These events, which occurred outside his sphere of influence, have propelled Santana forward to this spot, near or at the top of any reasonable list of the best left-handers in the game, any list of the top American League Cy Young Award candidates, any list of pitchers no one wants to face come October.
But now, fate is a bystander. The ball is in Santana's powerful left hand. Soon, in a matter of weeks, he will be standing on the mound somewhere -- quite likely at Yankee Stadium -- in Game 1 of the opening playoff series, and what happens to the Twins will depend to a large degree on what happens when Santana lets go of the ball.
"I've been working," Santana said, "and I've been waiting for this."
"This" is a 16-6 record, a 2.95 ERA, 224 strikeouts and a league-best .196 opponents' batting average as Santana enters his start Wednesday night against the Baltimore Orioles. "This" is also the remarkable tear Santana has been on since the second week in June.
Over Santana's last 17 starts, he is 14-2 (the two losses being by scores of 2-1 and 2-0) with a 1.57 ERA, while limiting opposing hitters to a .142 average. In that span of 1261/3 innings, he has struck out 163 batters while allowing only 61 hits. His arsenal of 94-mph fastball, hard slider and devastating change-up may be the nastiest in the league.
"Not to take anything away from Mark Mulder," said legendary Twins pitcher and current broadcaster Bert Blyleven, speaking of the Athletics' pitcher who may be Santana's chief competitor for the Cy Young Award, "but nobody is hotter than Johan. And it's not just that he's winning, but the way he's dominating. I mean, you look at the innings pitched to the hits allowed, with all those strikeouts. You can't say that about Mark Mulder."
Santana is "on a roll like we haven't seen in a long time around here," said Manager Ron Gardenhire, who has the Twins enjoying a 81/2-game lead in the AL Central. "I'm talking not giving up anything. He hasn't been giving up any runs, and that's been for a long, long time."
With Santana and right-hander Brad Radke potentially starting four times in a five-game first-round series, the Twins believe they have the arms to win in October, following second-round and first-round losses the past two seasons.
"I'll tell you this," Santana said. "They will have to come out with their best, because we're going to give them our best."
Ask Santana about his success, about the numbers and the adulation and the attention, and he acknowledges it graciously, as might be expected from a product of a small town in Venezuela called Tovar, far from the center of the nation's baseball hotbeds. But he also offers a shrug and an explanation: He could have been doing this long ago -- at the very least, last season -- had he been given the opportunity.
"I was waiting for just a little chance, just a little chance -- to be a starter," Santana said, making it clear he still has not gotten over the team's decision to keep him in the bullpen for most of his first four years in Minnesota. "I never had a chance. But they said we were stronger by having me in the bullpen, so what can you do?"
At the start of spring training 2003, Santana was a 24-year-old whose primary major league experience had come in the bullpen. When the team lost top lefty starter Eric Milton two weeks into spring training, team officials were prepared to move Santana into the rotation, but then they signed veteran Kenny Rogers and kept Santana in the bullpen, much to his dismay.
"We were a better team with him in the bullpen, and you always make moves for the benefit of the team's success," said General Manager Terry Ryan. "As much as people would question how we could have had [Santana] in the bullpen, well, we had Kenny Rogers, we had Joe Mays, we had Brad Radke, we had Kyle Lohse."
If it was a mistake to keep Santana in the bullpen for so long -- he finally was moved to the rotation, permanently, when Joe Mays was lost to injury in July 2003 -- it was nothing new; people have been making mistakes regarding Santana for years.
The Astros nurtured Santana for nearly five years -- starting on the day in 1994 when scout Andres Reiner drove 10 hours across the mountains, showed up at Santana's door and announced, "You don't know me, but I know you." Reiner invited Santana to the Astros' Venezuelan baseball academy. A year later, when he turned 16, the team signed him to a contract.
Dec. 13, 1999, will certainly live in some sort of infamy for the Astros. On that date, the team made the ill-fated decision to leave Santana exposed to the Rule 5 draft -- a redistribution procedure in which teams can select players off another team's unprotected list. Such players almost uniformly fade into obscurity -- with occasional exceptions, the most notable of which is George Bell, who went on to a long, productive career in Toronto.
"We were at a stage at that point where we had a lot of good, young pitching," said Tim Purpura, the Astros' assistant general manager. "It's difficult to decide who to protect. We certainly projected Johan to be a major league pitcher. But to say we projected him to be as good as he is today, that's probably a bit of a stretch."
The Twins, who had seen Santana pitch in Class A and in the Venezuelan winter league, swooped in and nabbed him. Although the Twins were forced by rule to keep Santana on their active major league roster for the 2000 season, it was not such a hardship, given their 63-97 record that year.
All that was left was for Santana to learn the craft of pitching -- which was accomplished, in part, by sending him to Class AAA at the start of the 2002 season to refine his change-up -- and for the spot to open up in the big league rotation.
Fate made those moves for him. Santana, his left arm strong and sure, will take it from here.