Unstoppable stopper

Johan Santana walks into the Twins' clubhouse, a full grin filling his face. "Merry Christmas, everybody!" he yells. The Minnesota winters can be interminable, for sure, but you're pretty certain Christmas is not in August. This calendar technicality doesn't dampen Santana's enthusiasm.

"Happy birthday, everyone!" the left-hander will shout the next day, and then you understand. Every day feels like Christmas to Santana; every day feels like a birthday, when you play baseball and get paid. This is a guy who shows up for early batting practice just to run around the outfield with fellow pitcher Carlos Silva and shag fly balls. Santana would draw great satisfaction from his work, even if he wasn't the best pitcher in baseball -- which he is.

Santana is 11-0 with a 1.27 ERA since the All-Star break, becoming the runaway leader for the AL Cy Young Award. Opponents are batting .147 against him in that span, generating only 43 hits and 18 walks in his 85.1 innings. Overall, the opposing 3-4-5 hitters are hitting only .193 against him this season, and he is 18-6 with a 2.76 ERA and 240 strikeouts, despite opening the season with a mechanical problem. "He's pretty much the whole package right now," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

In a year when there is no clear-cut MVP candidate among position players, Santana will probably get some consideration for that award, as well. Santana shut out the Chicago White Sox for seven innings Tuesday night in Minnesota's 7-1 victory, running his own streak of scoreless innings to 22. The Twins are 22-9 in his 31 starts, 13 games over .500; they are 11 games over .500 when others start. Minnesota has won every game he's pitched since July 11 and, quietly, the Twins have tied Oakland for the second-best record among AL division leaders. If they surpass the AL West leaders, they'll have home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Santana, 25, had some cleanup surgery in his elbow during the offseason, and he struggled to finish his fastballs early in the year: rather than following through in his delivery, extending his arm fully, Santana tended to cut his motion short. It's a psychological barrier many pitchers face after surgery, believing that full extension will cause great pain, and the flaw clued hitters as to whether he was throwing his fastball or changeup.

In a bullpen session in May, Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson asked Santana to reach out and hold his delivery as he threw his fastball, extending his arm. Santana, diligent and precise in his work, followed orders -- and realized he could throw pain-free. "It all came together," Santana said. "You have feel to good about what you are doing. I feel locked in and 100 percent, and everything is working"

Now his delivery camouflages all of his pitches, despite the enormous velocity difference between his fastball (94-95 mph), slider (84-85 mph) and his changeup (75 mph). Vladimir Guerrero, probably the best bad-ball hitter in the game, was fooled so badly that he swung at a Santana changeup that landed on the edge of the grass in front of the plate.

His command has improved dramatically, as well. Last year, Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski would set a target in the middle of the plate for Santana, figuring that the movement on Santana's fastball would do the work. Now Santana can hit spots, and new Twins catcher Henry Blanco holds his glove at the corners. And he can handle the responsibility of being the ace. "I think he knows in his mind that he's pretty good," said Anderson. "I think he knows in his mind that he's better than the other guy."

Santana didn't become a full-time member of the Twins' starting rotation until the middle of the 2003 season. A few months later, Gardenhire and Anderson called him in to tell Santana he would be pitching the Twins' first game of the playoffs, in Yankee Stadium. "Good," he said flatly. "OK, that'd be good." No big deal.

When the Twins open the playoffs next month, Santana will give Minnesota a tough weapon: The pitcher who has not lost in months will start twice in a five-game series, perhaps three times in a seven-game series. Merry Christmas, everybody -- except for the guys in the other uniforms who happen to be standing 60 feet, 6 inches away from Johan Santana.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is on the New York Times Best-Seller List and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.