BOSTON -- Minnesota outfielder Torii Hunter -- who turns 40 next month, has been in the big leagues for 19 seasons and has kids in college -- burst out laughing Wednesday when a visitor asked him if Red Sox left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez reminded him at all of Johan Santana, who won two Cy Young Awards while a teammate of Hunter's on the Twins.
"Oh, hell no," Hunter said. "I played behind Santana for years. I know him really well. He doesn't look at all like Santana."
But when he had stopped chuckling, Hunter made sure his visitor understood something else about Rodriguez, who had just held the Twins to two hits and a run in seven innings five days after he had shut out the Texas Rangers for 7 2/3 innings.
"He was nasty," Hunter said. "Don't get it twisted. He pitched a helluva game. But Santana and him, he's got to put in some work to do that."
The 22-year-old Rodriguez, a native son of Venezuela, grew up idolizing fellow countryman Santana, and last spring got to work with him while they were both rehabbing from injuries in extended spring training with the Orioles. Santana was a huge help, Rodriguez said, especially with his changeup. And after he won his major league debut last week against the Texas Rangers, there was a text message waiting on his phone from Santana: "Welcome to the big leagues."
Hunter, batting cleanup for the Twins in their 6-3 loss to the Red Sox, faced Rodriguez three times Wednesday afternoon, grounding out all three times. And while he didn't see the resemblance this side-by-side comparison suggests, Hunter came away persuaded that Rodriguez was no ordinary pitcher. Especially after he got a batter's box view of Rodriguez's 95 mph fastball.
"That's his best pitch, by far," Hunter said. "The heater is his pitch. If he can keep that up, throwing 94 to 96, I think that kid can be special.
"The changeup? From 1 to 10, I'd give it about a 7 -- 6 or 7. His slider, his third pitch, about a 5. That's just enough because he throws so hard, the third pitch doesn't have to be great. Just enough."
The fastball can be devastating, Hunter said, not just because of the velocity.
"It's a four-seam that cuts," Hunter said. "I think he gets around the ball and throws it at an angle and he's in on righties. A lot. If he can live in there on righties, then sometimes show in, then boom, hit ‘em away, the guy's going be special.
"He threw me changeups. Ninety-six and then he throws changeups. That's a good combo. That's what Johan did, but Johan had a great slider, too."
Santana made his debut as a 20-year-old in 2000. In his first three starts in the big leagues, he allowed 14 runs in 12 innings pitched. Early returns, obviously, don't necessarily foreshadow future success.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, had the Sox headed for the archives after each of his first two starts. In Texas, he made the longest scoreless outing by a Sox lefty since Billy Rohr ("the kid pitcher from Toronto, knocking on the door of fame”) came within a strike of throwing a no-hitter against the Yankees in 1967.
After holding the Twins to two hits and a run -- Brian Dozier's two-out homer in the third -- in seven innings, Rodriguez became the first pitcher post-1900 to go seven-plus innings in each of his first two starts while allowing no more than a run and three hits.
"He's got that changeup he throws to righties and lefties like Santana did," said Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, the longtime Twin and first-year manager.
"There's a little David Price for me there, too," Molitor said. "Everything from the physicality on the mound to the ability he's got. Extra velocity when he needs it. The slider, cutter there's a little bit of differentiation there, and Price's ability to use that cutter backdoor to righties and do different things.
"Just the image of him and how he looks, how he sets, how he goes about it. I watched three or four innings of the game he pitched last week, you couldn't help but be impressed. He didn't seem fazed by much. A really nice mound composure."
Molitor thought a moment.
"Kind of funny," he said, "but with his changeup, most of the time [Rodriguez] gets it down in to lefties and away from righties, but he pulls it across once in a while, kind of like Santana did."
Joe Mauer, the Twins' six-time All-Star and former AL MVP, caught Santana when both players were in their primes. Mauer, a left-handed hitter, was not in the lineup against Rodriguez but watched from the dugout and also had watched video of Rodriguez's start against the Rangers.
You can tell pretty early, Mauer said, if a pitcher has a chance to be special, echoing words John Farrell had just voiced in his postgame news conference.
"We have the vantage point of getting to know the person, as well as the pitcher," Farrell had said. "He's got great aptitude, he's intelligent, in addition to his physical abilities. He's a special kid."
Mauer noted that at 6-foot-2, Rodriguez had at least 2 inches on Santana.
"He has a bigger frame than Johan," Mauer said, "but a lot of hitters in the AL East will be in trouble if he picked up stuff from Johan. Johan's a great pitcher, and one thing made him great was how competitive he was. He was pretty fiery. That and the stuff he had made him great."
What will it take for Rodriguez to ultimately be compared to his idol?
"It's all about staying power, work ethic, the mentality of how you approach the game," Mauer said. "That's what keeps a guy here."
This is just the beginning. A glorious one, to be sure, but a blank page or canvas awaits -- white, with so many possibilities.