FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After 11 seasons in the Majors, including an All-Star appearance and work in eight postseason games, Ervin Santana was finally rewarded with his first career Opening Day start last year.But his outing against Baltimore at Oriole Park at Camden Yards was cut short due to circumstances
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After 11 seasons in the Majors, including an All-Star appearance and work in eight postseason games, Ervin Santana was finally rewarded with his first career Opening Day start last year.
But his outing against Baltimore at Oriole Park at Camden Yards was cut short due to circumstances out of his control, as a rain delay caused Santana to be removed after two scoreless innings. The Twins ended up dropping a close game, 3-2, falling on Opening Day for an eighth straight year en route to an 0-9 start that set the tone for a tough season.
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So this year, Santana is looking for a more memorable outing in the regular-season opener, when the Twins host one of his former teams, the Royals, at Target Field on Monday at 3:10 p.m. CT.
"It's an honor to me for the organization to give me the opportunity to pitch on Opening Day," Santana said. "I'm just trying to make a difference and help us win the first game."
Santana was easily Minnesota's best starter last season, when he posted a 3.38 ERA with 149 strikeouts and 53 walks in 181 1/3 innings. It marked the ninth season that the extremely durable Santana had made at least 30 starts, and Twins manager Paul Molitor said it was an easy decision to have the 34-year-old right-hander pitch the opener.
"He's what you look for," Molitor said. "He never gets rattled. He's done it for a long time. He's got a nice steadiness about him that bodes well for him with the way he pitches."
But it took a strong finish for Santana to put up the second-lowest ERA of his career. After his 12th start on June 14, Santana had a 5.10 ERA, but he went on an impressive run the rest of the way, posting a 2.41 ERA over his final 18 outings.
Santana simply got hitters to chase more, as they swung at 61.3 percent of his pitches out of the zone in those first 12 starts, but 66.4 percent in his last 18, per Statcast™. Hitters also batted .250 on pitches out of the zone in his first 12 starts but only .135 on those pitches the rest of the way.
It led to weaker contact, as opposing batters had an exit velocity of 89.5 mph in Santana's first 12 starts, compared to 88.6 mph after June 14. He also improved his strikeout rate, walk rate and home run rate during that stretch.
The batting average on balls on play posted by opposing hitters also fell significantly, while Santana's rate of stranding runners improved. Santana believes his early bad luck simply evened out.
"I really didn't try to change anything," Santana said.
Santana's out pitch remains his slider, which generated 203 swings and misses last year and limited opposing batters to a .209 average and .324 slugging percentage. Only Michael Pineda, Chris Archer and Max Scherzer generated more whiffs on sliders last year.
Santana also succeeds by mostly keeping the ball down, especially to his glove side, busting lefties inside to great success while using his changeup instead of his slider against lefties. He gets hurt when he leaves the ball above the middle of the zone, allowing a .419 slugging percentage in such cases. He allows a .336 slugging on pitches below the zone, per Statcast™.
"His ability to execute all of his pitches is what makes him effective," catcher Jason Castro said. "He has an ability to throw anything at any time. It makes him really tough. He doesn't necessarily fall into patterns, so you can't sit any one pitch. He never gives in."
Rhett Bollinger has covered the Twins for MLB.com since 2011. Read his blog, **Bollinger Beat, follow him on Twitter [@RhettBollinger](https://twitter.com/RhettBollinger)** and listen to his podcast.