MINNEAPOLIS - Minnesotans could be forgiven for feeling a tad overconfident these days whenever Twins pitcher Johan Santana is on the mound, and the Orioles got a feel for this yesterday in the fifth inning of their 5-1 loss at the Metrodome.
With Santana on his way to a career-best, 14-strikeout performance, Jose Leon was fighting his way through one of the Orioles' better at-bats of the game.
Four pitches in, Leon took a mighty swing and missed, as a nasty Santana slider hit the dirt. All of a sudden, Bob Casey, the Metrodome's raspy-voiced public address announcer, blurted out, "The designated hitter, Jay Gibbons."
Gibbons was taking his swings in the on-deck circle. The problem was, there were only two strikes on Leon.
A Twins official quickly grabbed the press-box microphone and said, "Bob, he hasn't struck out yet."
OK, so Casey got ahead of himself. Two pitches later, Leon became Santana's 10th strikeout of the day and 250th of the season.
The Orioles were good sports, of course, even if the whole game played out as a modern-day equivalent to Roman prisoners being served to starving lions at the Colosseum.
"[Casey] was too excited," Santana said.
So was everyone else in attendance, as a crowd of 31,399 seemed to be pushing Santana toward the American League Cy Young Award, their cheers rising every time he got two strikes on a hitter.
The Orioles won the first two games of the series by a combined score of 23-5, but this was a far different story.
Santana (19-6) has won 12 straight decisions, posting a 1.16 ERA in his past 13 starts, and the Twins seem to feel almost invincible on the days he pitches.
The Orioles had their own left-hander trying to match Santana zero-for-zero in the early going, but Bruce Chen (1-1) was eventually undone by three home runs, all from the bottom third of Minnesota's order.
No. 8 hitter Luis Rivas, who hadn't played since Sept. 1 after having surgery to remove nails on both of his big toes, broke a scoreless tie with a home run off Chen in the third inning.
No. 9 hitter Henry Blanco made it 2-0 in the sixth when he knocked a changeup from Chen into the left-field seats.
No. 7 hitter Michael Restovich added a two-run homer off Chen in the seventh inning, breaking things open.
Asked if he could appreciate watching a fellow left-hander pitch as well as Santana did, Chen said, "I don't appreciate the way he pitched today, that's for sure. But I mean, he's good, there's nothing I could do. I tried to keep up with him, and he just out-pitched me.
The Orioles actually had four hits the first time through their order against Santana, but he got B.J. Surhoff to ground into a double play in the second inning and never pitched with more than one runner on base.
On Sept. 8, Santana pitched seven scoreless innings against the Orioles, and they never got a runner to third base. This time the closest they came to third in his eight innings came in the first inning.
Tim Raines drilled a 92-mph fastball from Santana into the left-center gap and tried stretching the double into a triple. The Twins' relay had to be perfect to get the speedy Raines, and it was, as center fielder Lew Ford threw to shortstop Cristian Guzman, who fired to third in time to get Raines.
After watching the tape, some of the Orioles thought Raines had slid in safely, but the way Santana was racking up strikeouts it might not have mattered.
"He's got a fantastic changeup, and his slider got better as the game went on, too," Surhoff said. "He kept coming at you, coming at you, and I didn't really see a pattern."
After Leon's strikeout, the crowd rose to its feet whenever Santana got two strikes on a batter, and Santana's day built to a phenomenal climax. He struck out the final four batters he faced on 13 pitches - that's right, 12 strikes and one ball.
He used 10 pitches to strike out the side in the eighth, as Larry Bigbie, Brian Roberts and Raines each went down swinging.
Santana's pitch count was at 103, so Twins manager Ron Gardenhire used Joe Nathan to protect a 5-0 lead in the ninth. The crowd booed when the All-Star closer ran in from the bullpen, and the Orioles got their lone run on Rafael Palmeiro's run-scoring single in the ninth.
But the day still belonged to Santana.
"He pitched a pretty good game," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said in his typical understatement. "What can I say? The kid's a good pitcher."
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Fenway Park, Boston
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Matt Riley (1-4, 6.33) vs. Red Sox's Tim Wakefield (11-9, 4.72)