Tribe now 5-0 against Santana

MINNEAPOLIS – If the Cleveland Indians avoid a colossal collapse and finish with the AL Central title at the end of this month, they can count their mastery of Johan Santana and the Minnesota Twins as one of the reasons for the success.

C.C. Sabathia threw eight shutout innings, and the Indians topped Santana and the Twins once more with a 5-0 victory yesterday that extended their lead over the defending division champs to 10 1/2 games.

Cleveland is 12-4 against Minnesota and 5-0 against the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner this year.

“He’s a great pitcher, one of the best in the game,” Indians manager Eric Wedge said. “Fortunately for us, we had our guy out there who is also one of the best in the game.”

The last time a Twins pitcher went 0-5 in one season against the same opponent was 1974, when Joe Decker lost five straight to the Oakland Athletics. Ryan Garko homered, and each of the three batters walked by the left-hander scored. Santana (14-11) gave up six hits and four runs in six innings, and he struck out three.

“It’s never a fun at-bat,” Garko said. “When we see the schedule coming up we all kind of roll our eyes and say, ‘Here he comes again.’ I think, though, the more you see a pitcher – no matter how good his stuff is – the more ready you are to face him.”

Sabathia (16-7) bested Santana for the second time in a week. He gave up six hits and one walk while striking out six in his ninth straight start with two runs allowed or fewer. Sabathia is 4-1 with a 1.51 ERA against the Twins this year.

“I don’t have to face him. The guys in the lineup do,” Sabathia said. “They’re doing a great job, and I just go out and try to focus on their lineup.”

That lineup hasn’t provided much resistance at all. In six starts against Cleveland, Santana has received just eight runs of support.

“Like I always say, ‘It’s not just about one guy or one pitcher or one player,'” Santana said. “It takes a whole team to win a game. That wasn’t the case today, and that’s why we lost the game.”

Minnesota was as many as 12 1/2 games behind the Detroit Tigers last season before rebounding to win the division, but a year ago on this date the Twins had already cut the lead to five games.

They’re not playing nearly as well as last season, either, and that includes Santana. He is clearly still one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers, but the Indians have not been intimidated one bit.

Manager Ron Gardenhire was visibly frustrated, though much more concerned by his team’s lack of offensive life and flawed fundamentals than the disappearance of Santana’s invincibility.

“He’s gone out and given us a chance to win every stinking baseball game,” Gardenhire said.

Cleveland had at least two runners in each of the first three innings, scoring once in each of those frames. Travis Hafner hit a hard chopper over the mound with two on and no outs in the first that Santana snared to start what would have been an easy double play.

Shortstop Jason Bartlett dropped the ball, though, for his 24th error to load the bases. Victor Martinez hit a sacrifice fly later in the inning.

Franklin Gutierrez hit a sacrifice fly in the third, after Bartlett mistakenly cut off a throw from right fielder Michael Cuddyer that had a chance to get Martinez advancing to third base.

Alexi Casilla had a career-high four hits, but he was thrown out trying to go from second to third on a sharp grounder to shortstop in the first inning.

With one no-decision, Santana posted a 4.38 ERA in 39 innings over his six starts against the division leaders this year. This is the first time in his career he’s lost more than twice to the same team.

From 2003 to 2006, Santana posted astounding statistics after the All-Star break: 40 wins, 4 losses and a 2.07 ERA in 59 starts. In the second half this year, he is 4-5 with a 3.82 ERA.

That sums up this disappointing season for Minnesota.

“We’re the champions still from last year, and we’re not playing like it. That’s the bottom line,” Santana said, adding some credit for Cleveland: “They’re comfortable. They have a lot of confidence, and that’s how you win games. If you look around, we’re not half that.”