FORT MYERS, Fla. – With a rotation badly in need of improvement, the Minnesota Twins can at least count on Ervin Santana as their anchor.
Over the course of his 12-year major league career, the right-hander and former Kansas City Royal has been one of the most dependable starting pitchers in the game. He has made at least 30 starts in six of the last seven seasons, with the only exception in 2015 when he served an 80-game suspension for testing positive for the performance-enhancing substance Stanozolol.
There's no great secret to his consistency that stretches back to his rookie year with the Los Angeles Angels in 2005.
"Throw strikes, keep the ball down for the most part, and just work fast," Santana said. "That's the thing."
Though Twins manager Paul Molitor hasn't officially named the 34-year-old native of the Dominican Republic his opening day starter, that has become a foregone conclusion and a bit of a running joke in Molitor's dealings with the media that Santana will take the mound when the Twins host his former team, the Kansas City Royals, on April 3. Last season, Molitor waited until the final week of spring training to make the official announcement.
Santana was the only Twins pitcher to reach the 150-inning mark (181) in 2016. He was the only starter to finish with an ERA (3.38) under 5.00. Santana also led the Twins in starts (30), complete games (two), strikeouts (149) and walks-and-hits-per-innings-pitched (1.219).
"He does make it look easy just the way he goes about it," Molitor said. "He gets ahead more times than not, and he pitches to finish."
Following Santana, incumbents Phil Hughes, former University of Missouri standout Kyle Gibson and Hector Santiago are in line to fill out in the rotation again following a rough year for each of them in their own right. Trevor May, Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey, Ryan Vogelsong and Blue Springs High School graduate Nick Tepesch are in the mix for a spot, too.
Santana made another solid start against Team Colombia in a World Baseball Classic exhibition game at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers on Thursday, tossing four innings while allowing two earned runs with three strikeouts. The only glaring mistake he made was to Colombia catcher Jorge Alfaro in the fourth inning, when the Philadelphia Phillies prospect sent a two-strike, no-ball fastball over the outer half of the plate over the left-center wall.
"He tried to elevate on that 0-2 pitch, and the guy somehow got the barrel on it and smoked it," Molitor said.
There's nobody on Minnesota's staff better equipped to shrug off a bad pitch. In his previous two spring outings, Santana pitched five scoreless innings while striking out three and walking one.
"It happens," Santana said. "They have a bat. I have a ball. That kind of thing can happen."