FORT MYERS: The loss of starting pitcher Ervin Santana for half of the season was disastrous for the 2015 Minnesota Twins.
However, it might end up being a blessing for the 2016 iteration.
Santana was suspended for 80 games to start last season after testing positive for stanozolol, a banned performance-enhancing substance. It was a major blow to a team that just signed the former All-Star to a team-record $55 million over four years during the offseason in hopes that he would bolster the front end of their rotation. His absence did allow several of the organization’s younger pitchers to get an extended look at the big-league level, experience that helped push their development forward ahead of schedule in some cases.
On the flip side, the suspension — and the 17 starts Santana missed because of it — also meant considerably less mileage on the 33-year-old’s pitching arm. His 108 innings pitched in 2015 was his lowest total since he threw 133.2 in his 2005 rookie season. Upon his return to the mound, the average velocity on his fastball was higher (92.7) than it had been since 2008 (94.8), according to FanGraph’s Pitch F/X data.
Santana was perfect in his three innings of work against the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park on Thursday afternoon. He didn’t allow a baserunner while striking out three in the Twins’ 8-2 victory. Santana was so efficient with his pitches — throwing 18 of 26 for strikes — that he had to throw an additional bullpen session after he left the game to meet his pitch count for the day.
“I was throwing strikes. That’s what happens when you throw strikes. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad,” Santana said after picking up the win. “I had a very good command today with my fastball location. Slider, change-up, everything was good.”
“It was a good day on the mound. Ervin looked very sharp,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “He got some funny swings — which is always a good sign — out of some pretty good hitters.”
A rested and rejuvenated Santana might be the key for a Twins team that has high expectations after a surprising 83-79 finish, good for second place last year in the hypercompetitive American League Central division. During his 11-year career, Santana has a 126-105 record with a 4.16 ERA and 1,589 strikeouts.
Having an ace-quality starter on the hill every fifth day can have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the staff — especially one that has several question marks this spring. Just ask the Red Sox, who signed former Cy Young Award winner David Price to a seven-year, $217 million deal this offseason. Price made his spring debut on Thursday against Santana and the Twins in what might have been a battle of the team’s respective Opening Day starters.
“You see the things you’ve heard indirectly come to life, whether it’s the ease with which he has filtered into the clubhouse, or at least seems to have eased into the clubhouse, the way he has interacted with new teammates or the way he has gone about his work with a very structured, very professional approach,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said about Price’s presence this spring.
Price had an auspicious beginning to his spring after allowing back-to-back home runs to Twins shortstop Eduardo Escobar and catcher Kurt Suzuki — their firsts of the spring — in the top of the second.
“Body felt good, made some pitches that I didn’t execute, but that is to be expected right now,” Price said.
Price, who did manage three strikeouts in his three innings of work, took the loss after giving up four hits and walking another.
Escobar and Suzuki both finished the day 2-for-3 with two runs scored.
Brian Dozier continued to swing a hot bat this spring, going 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI and a run scored. Carlos Quentin, who is trying to earn a roster spot with the Twins this spring after missing all of last season, went 2-for-3 with a home run.
Boston’s lone runs came on a two-run single by David Murphy, who was signed as a minor-league free agent earlier this month, in the bottom of the eighth.