MINNEAPOLIS -- To beat Johan Santana, you had better get to him early. And "early," in this case, means when you line up your pitching probables. Because as much as one might be quick to give all the credit to the Tribe bats for beating Santana an unprecedented five times in a season, as the Indians did with Monday's 5-0 victory over the Twins at the Metrodome, the other guy on the mound can't be overlooked.
The Indians pitted their ace, C.C. Sabathia, in an arm-to-arm battle with Santana three times the past month and won all three. It was no coincidence. "[Santana is] one of the best in the game," manager Eric Wedge said. "Fortunately for us, we had our guy out there, too, who's also one of the best in the game." Sabathia proved as much on this day, in which the Indians got their important 10-game road trip off on a positive note and upped their American League Central lead over the idle Tigers to a season-high six games. For eight scoreless innings, Sabathia pestered a Twins lineup that has struggled mightily against him all year. He limited them to six hits with a walk and six strikeouts while extending his streak of outings in which he's allowed two earned runs or fewer to nine. Sabathia went 4-1 with a 1.51 ERA in five starts against Minnesota this season. Those are numbers that must be satisfying for a guy who once said he hates the Twins. Of course, hatred can be relevant to the situation. Sabathia no longer makes that claim of a club that now sits in third place, well out of reach in the division race. "That was just us trying to get to where they were," Sabathia said of his past comment. "We knew the division was coming through here. It was just me being competitive." The hatred now comes from the other clubhouse, because the Indians are the ones in prime position to win the division, thanks in large part to their ace's efforts. "[Sabathia's] a great competitor," Wedge said. "He works so hard to keep himself in control out there. He makes his emotions work for him." That was evident in this outing. Three of the six hits that Sabathia allowed were of the ticky-tack variety -- the kind of small missteps that might have led to a larger unraveling in Sabathia's younger, more emotional days. Alexi Casilla led off the bottom of the first with a catchable fly ball to the gap in left-center field, yet Kenny Lofton and Franklin Gutierrez let it fall between them. But rather than let the cheap double get to him, Sabathia struck out Jason Bartlett and got Torii Hunter to hit a grounder to the left side. Casilla made the mistake of breaking for third on the latter play and was nabbed. With one out in the third, Casilla reached again -- this time on a grounder that third baseman Casey Blake let roll to the bag. The ball looked as though it might go foul, but it hit the bag, and Casilla was aboard. Sabathia didn't mind. He briskly retired Bartlett and Hunter to end the inning. What would be a four-hit day for Casilla continued in the fifth, when he hit a broken-bat bloop single to center with two outs. He was then retired on a fielder's choice. Containing Casilla was Sabathia's only real issue on this day. Even when the Twins managed to mount a legitimate threat to his dominance in the fourth, he found an antidote. The Twins, down 3-0, had two on with one out, but Sabathia got Rondell White to hit into the inning-ending double play. Big pitches like that helped Sabathia beat the Twins for the second time in less than a week. "My secondary stuff was a lot better [this time around]," he said. "I'm just trying to pound the zone and throw strikes and keep us in games." Santana was trying to do the same, but the Indians undermined his efforts from the outset. The Tribe got on the board right away in the first, when Lofton drew a leadoff walk and scored on Victor Martinez's sacrifice fly. In the second, Casey Blake drew a one-out walk and Ben Francisco came through with an RBI double to the gap in left-center field. The Indians took advantage of a third walk in the third. This time, Martinez drew it and Gutierrez's sac fly scored him. "Our guys did a good job today of manufacturing and finishing off innings," Wedge said. "If you talk about getting some big hits, some big at-bats, some tough at-bats, there's a lot of things that contributed to that. That's what it takes to beat Santana." Wedge's club certainly knows what it takes, having become the first team to beat the two-time Cy Young Award winner more than twice in a year. Not that the Indians would like to see Santana on the mound every time they face the Twins. "It's never a fun at-bat," said Ryan Garko, whose solo homer in the fifth put the game on ice. "We see the schedule coming up and roll our eyes like, 'Here he comes again.' But I think we're starting to pick up his changeup a little bit better. We're not swinging at his changeup in the dirt." It wasn't long ago that the Indians were swinging at anything and everything and going down quietly. That hasn't been the case in a run that's seen the Tribe win nine of 10. "Right now, the team as a whole is playing well," Lofton said. "When the team as a whole is playing well and you face a guy who is good, sometimes it doesn't matter. Maybe if we had faced him a month ago or so, it would have been a different story." Yes, timing is everything. And having Sabathia on the mound on this day was certainly timely, too. "To see two matchups with those guys in a week," Wedge said, "is great for baseball." With an outcome that was great for the Indians.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.