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Santana, upstart Twins not frightened by ghosts of New York failures

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Ervin Santana looks on after completing the sixth inning against the San Diego Padres at Target Field in Minneapolis on Sept. 13, 2017. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — Ervin Santana flippantly guaranteed a win over the storied New York Yankees in Tuesday's American League wild-card game. Like the rest of the upstart Minnesota Twins, he has nothing to lose.

Santana already is 0-5 with a 6.43 earned-run average in six starts at Yankee Stadium II, where he will take the mound in a one-game showdown against Minnesota's postseason archnemesis. He also was tagged for a loss in relief for the Angels during the 2009 American League Championship Series.

None of that resonated with the Twins' ace right-hander Monday, Oct. 2, when he was asked during a news conference about his unfulfilling history in the Bronx.

"How many games do I pitch here?" Santana asked his inquisitor, ESPN's Buster Olney. "And how many wins?"

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

"So tomorrow is going to be one," Santana said with a twinkle in his eye.

The Twins' ghastly playoff legacy with the Yankees is impossible to ignore for anyone who has invested emotionally and financially with the little engine that could from the AL Central.

They have lost 10 of 12 postseason games to the Yankees in four division series defeats — 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010. They are 9-21 in 30 regular-season games over nine seasons in this ballpark, including a three-game sweep by New York just last week.

But the Twins are not chasing the demons of Ron Gardenhire, Phil Cuzzi and the Piranhas. They are chasing their October dream. And this winner-take-all game is the perfect opportunity for the 2017 Twins to break free from the shackles of history and make some of their own.

Santana was cool as a cucumber during his media session before Monday's workout, answering questions in Spanish and English with the confidence of a true believer. Earlier in the day, he re-tweeted a GIF showing the final seconds of Team USA's upset over the Soviet Union in hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

"Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist," Santana wrote with a series of hashtags, including "#SMELLBASEBALL!!!"

"Smell baseball is like the passion for the game, that game that I love since I was little. It means a lot," said Santana, who grew up in the Dominican Republic. "That tweet is, you know, just trying to be positive. Just trying to be positive and just create good things for me and for our team. So, I have to look it up."

Joe Mauer does not have to look up anything to know he has been a playoff bystander for seven years. He is the only Twin remaining from the Yankees' consecutive series sweeps in 2009 and '10.

"Really, (for) this team, it doesn't mean a whole lot," Mauer said. "I'm probably the only one that it means a little bit more, maybe. It's a different team, and they've got a different team over there. So, we're looking forward to tomorrow night and then see what happens."

Santana has more experience than his counterpart, New York starter Luis Severino, who is making his postseason debut. These are not the dominant Yankees of the '00s but another upstart bunch like the Twins, whose rebuilding projects led each team back to the playoffs.

Long gone are Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Jorge Posada. These are the Baby Bombers of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorious.

The pressure is all on the Yankees. They won 91 games. They have the 27 world championship banners. And they are playing at home in front of an electrified crowd that not only expects the Yankees to win but demands it.

The Twins are baseball's first team to reach the playoffs one year after losing 103 games. Manager Paul Molitor likened his greenhorns to freshmen basketball players who shed the label in the cauldron of March Madness.

The Twins have been given up for dead so many times, a hearse has been circling Target Field since midseason — wasting gasoline. They were fading so fast in late July that management traded away starting pitcher Jaime Garcia and closer Brandon Kintzler for prospects, sparking a near mutiny in the clubhouse.

Minnesota was 52-56 on Aug. 5 and closed the season on a 33-21 run. They led the major leagues in scoring over that span despite losing slugger Miguel Sano to an injured shin that leaves his status for Tuesday's wild-card game a wild card.

"These guys have been through a lot this year, and I think even the guys that maybe even this is their first go-round, they're way better off than they were at the start of the year and what some of these guys endured last year, too," said Molitor.

"It's a one-game deal. If inexperience shows up, we can't predict that. I think we're going to play a good game. A lot of confidence in that group in there, and it's going to be a lot of fun."

The Twins have one game to make a statement, one win to change history and enough confidence not to be burdened by it all.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.