Zito kept Minnesota off balance with his big curveball, Thomas hit two huge home runs and the Athletics defeated the Twins and their ace 3-2 Tuesday in the opener of their first-round AL playoff series.
“First blood, I think, means a lot—especially when you’re playing on the road,” Zito said.
Zito quieted the Twins and their fans at the noisy, quirky ballpark for eight innings. He gave up four hits, three walks and one run and struck out one.
Oakland emerged in excellent shape after beating Santana, who was 16-0 over a span of 23 regular-season starts in which the Twins won every time since Aug. 1, 2005.
Santana led the league in ERA, strikeouts and innings, and tied for the AL high in wins.
“Santana’s probably going to win another Cy Young,” A’s first baseman Nick Swisher said. “For us to overcome the noise and all that stuff and win against him is something special.”
Minnesota rookie Boof Bonser will start against Esteban Loaiza in Game 2 Wednesday afternoon. A season-ending elbow injury to All-Star Francisco Liriano and right-hander Brad Radke’s shaky shoulder have left the rotation looking a little thin.
This is a team that was a whopping 10 1/2 games behind Detroit on Aug. 7, though, before overtaking the Tigers to win the AL Central division on the final day. Comebacks are nothing new for them.
“Same as we’ve been doing all year,” said first baseman Justin Morneau, who went 0-for-4. “Everybody’s going to say we’re done again, but we don’t believe that.”
Thomas went 3-for-4, homering in the ninth off Jesse Crain. The 38-year-old became the oldest player to have a multihomer game in postseason history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“It was a big day,” Thomas said. “I’m just happy to win this first game, because this is a tough place to win ballgames.”
Closer Huston Street gave one back after a leadoff triple by Michael Cuddyer was lost in the ceiling by right fielder Milton Bradley. Torii Hunter drove in Cuddyer with a groundout, but Rondell White—who doubled in the fifth and homered in the seventh—flied out to center to end the game.
“This team’s pretty resilient,” catcher Joe Mauer said, the major league batting leader who went 0-for-3 with a walk. “We’ve dealt with coming from behind before. We’re not going to quit until it’s done.”
The stadium was filled, of course, with 55,542 fans wiggling those white Homer Hankies and roaring every time Santana so much as made a move on the field in the minutes before the game.
Zito ran with it, no-hitting Minnesota through 4 2-3 innings and only twice letting a runner get past second base. The left-hander with the big leg kick and even bigger curveball consistently kept the Twins from hitting their sweet spots.
“Everybody’s aware of it, but Zito’s in the same category as Santana,” Street said.
Santana went eight innings and finished with a career playoff-best eight strikeouts.
“Everything was working out pretty good,” said Santana, who allowed five hits and walked one. “I was throwing my fastballs in the corners. Everything was fine. Unfortunately you make one mistake, and you pay for it. Today we weren’t able to come back.”
After his 16-year career with the Chicago White Sox ended badly, injured ankle, attitude and all, Thomas has enjoyed a resurgence in his first season with the A’s—racking up 39 homers and 114 RBIs.
He talked with the Twins, ironically, about joining them to serve as the designated hitter, but they were concerned about his health on the artificial turf and Thomas signed with Oakland instead for $500,000 plus incentives.
“All 30 teams could’ve had him,” A’s manager Ken Macha said.
Thomas is 8-for-19 with three homers and five RBIs in his career against Santana. The Big Hurt now has 50 homers and 132 RBIs in 171 career games against Minnesota, his most against any opponent and the second-most hit by one player against the Twins behind Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (51).
“It seems like he always gets hot when he comes to play us,” Mauer said.
Zito and third baseman Eric Chavez are the only players who were a part of each of Oakland’s first-round losers from 2000 to 2003, teams that failed a total of nine times to win games with a chance to eliminate the opponent.
In fact, Ellis, the second baseman, is the only other guy left from 2002, when the A’s were beaten in five by the Twins. Zito won Game 3 that year at the Metrodome, Oakland’s most recent road playoff victory.
With Zito, a pending free agent, in likely his last month with the team, the time might be right for the A’s to finally break through.
“We’re here to win it,” Thomas said.
The last postseason homer hit by Thomas was in the 1993 AL championship series, in Game 4 against Toronto. … The teenage children of late Twins great Kirby Puckett, who died in March following a stroke, threw out the ceremonial first pitches. … Minnesota’s last loss in a postseason Game 1 was in the 1970 ALCS to Baltimore. The Twins had won eight straight openers.