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Santana fitting into Twins' starter role

With Milton out, left-handed reliever joins rotation

By Gordon Wittenmyer

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- The left-hander in the spotlight for the Twins took a four-inning step Sunday toward being ready for his first start in place of the injured Eric Milton.

"The shutout pitcher," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said, referring to Johan Santana, who showed command that had been missing in his first two starts this spring and pitched four scoreless innings against the Cleveland Indians.

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Santana gave up four hits, struck out two and didn't walk a batter in the Twins' 14-3 victory over Cleveland. He had six walks in four innings over his first two spring starts.

"The last time out, Jo-Jo was all around. This time he was over the plate," Gardenhire said. "That's what we're looking for."

Especially now that Santana will be counted on to fill Milton's spot for at least half the season. It's Santana's first extended shot at a major league starting job, and one that comes with the added responsibility of what's expected to be a pennant run.

"I want to try to do what he would do. I want to do what I did last year," said Santana, who went 7-5 with a 3.24 earned-run average in 14 starts while replacing ace Brad Radke last year. "I'm looking forward to establishing myself in the starting rotation -- but not this way. I want to earn my spot in the starting rotation with my pitching."

Santana, who had a 2.99 ERA last season, would have had the inside track to do that before Milton's injury if the Twins had any spots open in a rotation that included four former all-stars. He led all American League pitchers with 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings last year.

And after being unable to play winter ball because of civil unrest in his native Venezuela, then entering camp with a still-healing hamstring pull, Santana appears to be fast-approaching his old form.

"I'm almost there," he said. "I'm feeling good, and that's the good thing about it. I was able to locate my fastball today, so I'm looking for my breaking ball and my changeup now.

"I think I'm going to be ready."

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• Outfielder; Dustan Mohr, trying to win the starting right field job, and first baseman Todd Sears, who might not have a roster spot to play for, continued to swing well in the Twins' split-squad games Sunday.

Mohr, playing in Lakeland, Fla., against Detroit, went 2 for 3 with a triple. He is 10 for 24 (.417) with two homers and three triples this spring.

Sears, playing against Cleveland in Winter Haven, hit his team-leading fifth home run in a 1-for-4 game. He is hitting .346 (9 for 26) this spring.

Injury updates: First baseman Justin Morneau made his first start in the field, playing first base without any problems with his broken big toe. Morneau, who broke the toe two days before camp opened, started his first game Friday but as the designated hitter. He went 4 for 5 Sunday with his second homer in three games.

Switch-hitting outfielder Bobby Kielty has been sidelined for more than a week.

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