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Santana keeps Twins in Central title race



Published: Mon, September 11, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



He stopped the Tigers on two hits and won his 18th game .

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Johan Santana already has one AL Cy Young Award and appears to be closing in on another.

After his latest dazzling effort brought the Minnesota Twins within striking distance of Detroit in the AL Central, teammate Nick Punto thinks Santana deserves consideration for another honor -- MVP.

The left-hander struck out 11 and allowed only two hits in Minnesota's 12-1 victory over the Tigers on Sunday, pitching into the seventh inning and pulling the Twins within two games of first-place Detroit.

"Santana just dominates," said Punto, who had four hits and three RBIs. "There's a psychological thing going on, too, with teams who come in here against him."

The Twins haven't lost a Santana home start since Aug. 6, 2005, going 22-0 in that span. Santana (18-5) is 15-0 with a 1.92 ERA during that stretch and hasn't lost a game at all since the All-Star break.

Hunter leads at plate

Torii Hunter had three hits and scored three runs for the Twins, who trailed the Tigers by 101/2 games just more than a month ago. With the lead dwindling, Detroit has lost five of six.

"Now the season really starts," Tigers outfielder Craig Monroe said. "It starts over for us and let's get back on track, take a well-needed day off and come back and be ready to go."

After taking three of four in this series, the Twins lead Chicago by 11/2 games in the wild-card standings and haven't been this close to the division lead since April 13. And Sunday's dominant victory proved the race is far from over.

They have shaved 81/2 games off the lead since star pitcher Francisco Liriano went on the disabled list with arm problems. The rookie is set to make his return on Wednesday, and Punto says Santana is the reason the Twins are still in it.

"That's why Santana is my MVP," Punto said. "It was a huge letdown losing [Liriano] in Detroit. We could have easily packed it in. Santana didn't allow that."

Only four pitchers have won an MVP award since 1971, with Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley the last to do it in 1992.

AL's leading pitcher

Santana, who leads the majors in wins, strikeouts and ERA, said individual awards are nice, but "I'm more about trying to win a World Series."

Tigers starter Jeremy Bonderman's misery continued where it all began. Bonderman (11-8) hasn't won in nine starts, a skid that began with a crazy eighth inning at the Metrodome on July 30.

He breezed through the first seven innings of that outing against Santana, leading 3-0 in the eighth. But his balk let the tying run score during a small-ball rally that gave the Twins a 6-4 victory.

"I'm throwing the pitches the same as all year, but I'm just getting in trouble a lot more lately," Bonderman said.

The Twins were just as opportunistic on Sunday, forcing the issue on the bases and piecing together offense with bunts, a team record-tying four sacrifice flies and pure hustle.

Minnesota had three triples in the game, the last by Luis Castillo in the decisive five-run sixth. That hit scored two and chased Bonderman, who allowed seven runs and eight hits with six strikeouts in 52/3 innings.

He didn't get any help from his offense, either. After being shut down by rookie Boof Bonser in a 2-1 loss Saturday night, the Tigers were overpowered by the lefty pursuing baseball's pitching triple crown.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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