Johan Santana won 19 games for the Twins this year and seems to be the favorite to win the Cy Young Award as the American League's best pitcher. Boof Bonser - who legally changed his name from John in 2001 - has not even pitched in 19 major league games and seemed to be wearing a path between the Twin Cities and Rochester, New York.
Bonser made six trips back and forth between the Twins and their top minor league team before settling into a big league groove about six weeks ago. Bonser says he's talked with some of his more experienced teammates about how to prepare for his biggest game yet.
"I talked to all the starters, all the veteran guys," Bonser said. "They say 'It's going to be crazy but you've got to keep pitching your game and don't back down. Just go out there and just pretend it's another game, don't worry about the playoffs and, like I said, just pitch your game and just go after these guys.'"
Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire says an aggressiveness about going after opponents is what distinguishes the Bonser of today from the pitcher who started the year in the minors.
The Twins came into the season thinking Scott Baker was their best rookie pitcher. When Baker disappointed, he was sent down to Rochester and the Twins turned to lefthander Francisco Liriano. Liriano was phenomenal. But after winning twelve games and losing only three, he injured a ligament in his elbow and he's now working on getting healthy for next year.
Now it's Bonser who's blossoming and Gardenhire says the bloom is ahead of schedule.
"He's a young man that wasn't expected to do a whole lot at this level this year," Gardenhire said. "We had a pretty good pitching staff, we thought in the spring. But with injuries and everything, he's come up and been fantastic.
"We've always known he's be able to start at this level, we knew he was a good one. He's just been asked to do it a little earlier than normal and I think starting in the playoffs says a lot about what he's done and what we feel he can do for this team."
One thing Bonser might be asked to do is walk Frank Thomas. Thomas is well-known to the Twins from the 16 years he spent as the leading slugger of their rivals, the Chicago White Sox. When he reached his mid-30s, persistent foot injuries limited his playing time and seemed to be drawing the curtain on his career.
Instead, Thomas made a resounding comeback in Oakland and capped it with two home runs in his first playoff game with the A's. Gardenhire says the Twins were ready to walk Thomas if he came to bat in dangerous situations. But every time he came to the plate in Game 1, he was the first hitter of the inning, which Gardenhire says made an intentional walk impractical and led to the home runs at the start of the second and ninth innings.
"We know Frank's going to swing like that. We know he's going to hit some balls," Gardenhire said. "You've got to make pitches to him as best you can. If you get in big situations and you have an opportunity to pitch around him, you do that. But leading off, you've got to go at him a little bit, anyway."
On the pitcher's mound for the A's today will be another former White Sox all-star. Esteban Loaiza, like Boof Bonser, hit his stride only late in the season. In Loaiza's case, that was due mainly to injury that was not accurately diagnosed until May, after Loaiza endured a terrible start to the year.
Most successful big league pitchers throw a fastball in the 90-100 mile-an-hour range. Many will occasionally mix in a slower pitch, say in the 70s, to try to throw off the batter's timing. A's manager Ken Macha remembers with a shudder one of Loaiza's April appearances in which velocity had abandoned his pitches.
"His first pitch was 79 miles an hour on our radar gun," Macha recalled. "I said to the pitching coach 'What was that?' He said 'That was a fastball.' I said 'Oh, my goodness.' I said 'Don't worry, he'll get through three innings because he's throwing below hitting speed.' And he wound up pitching, I think, 3 1/3 or something like that."
Loaiza took a month-and-a-half off, came back in June and wound up winning 11 games over the rest of the season. Today he and Bonser will try to match the standards set by Santana and Oakland's Barry Zito, each of whom lasted eight innings in Game 1.
Whether Bonser makes it that long could depend on his mood. Teammate Torii Hunter says he's noticed that Bonser seems to be at his best on days when he's ticked off: "You would say something to him like 'Boof, let's go, here we go.' And he's just go 'Grrrrr,' y'know, growling at you or whatever. And that let's me know he's upset when he takes the mound and it shows in the way he pitches. The last four or five starts, he looked good."
The Twins are hoping Bonser's doggedness will help even the series, which moves to Oakland for Game 3 Friday. Brad Radke is scheduled to be the starting pitcher for the Twins against the A's Dan Haren.