MINNEAPOLIS -- Johan Santana already has one AL Cy Young Award and appears to be closing in on another.
The left-hander struck out 11 and allowed only two hits in Minnesota's 12-1 victory over the Tigers on Sunday, pitching into the seventh inning and pulling the Twins within two games of first-place Detroit.
"Santana just dominates," said Punto, who had four hits and three RBI. "There's a psychological thing going on, too, with teams who come in here against him."
The Twins haven't lost a Santana home start since Aug. 6, 2005, going 22-0 in that span. Santana (18-5) is 15-0 with a 1.92 ERA during that stretch and hasn't lost a game at all since the All-Star break.
Torii Hunter had three hits and scored three runs for the Twins, who trailed the Tigers by 10½ games just more than a month ago. With the lead dwindling, Detroit has lost five of six.
"Now the season really starts," Tigers outfielder Craig Monroe said. "It starts over for us and let's get back on track, take a well-needed day off and come back and be ready to go."
After taking three of four in this series, the Twins lead Chicago by 1½ games in the wild-card standings and haven't been this close to the division lead since April 13. And Sunday's dominant victory proved the race is far from over.
They have shaved 8½ games off the lead since star pitcher Francisco Liriano went on the disabled list with arm problems. The rookie is set to make his return on Wednesday, and Punto says Santana is the reason the Twins are still in it.
"That's why Santana is my MVP," Punto said. "It was a huge letdown losing (Liriano) in Detroit. We could have easily packed it in. Santana didn't allow that."
Only four pitchers have won an MVP award since 1971, with Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley the last to do it in 1992.
Santana, who leads the majors in wins, strikeouts and ERA, said individual awards are nice, but "I'm more about trying to win a World Series."
Tigers starter Jeremy Bonderman's misery continued where it all began. Bonderman (11-8) hasn't won in nine starts, a skid that began with a crazy eighth inning at the Metrodome on July 30.
He breezed through the first seven innings of that outing against Santana, leading 3-0 in the eighth. But his balk let the tying run score during a small-ball rally that gave the Twins a 6-4 victory.
"I'm throwing the pitches the same as all year, but I'm just getting in trouble a lot more lately," Bonderman said.
The Twins were just as opportunistic on Sunday, forcing the issue on the bases and piecing together offense with bunts, a team record-tying four sacrifice flies and pure hustle.
Minnesota had three triples in the game, the last by Luis Castillo in the decisive five-run sixth. That hit scored two and chased Bonderman, who allowed seven runs and eight hits with six strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.
He didn't get any help from his offense, either. After being shut down by rookie Boof Bonser in a 2-1 loss Saturday night, the Tigers were overpowered by the lefty pursuing baseball's pitching triple crown.
Santana received a standing ovation from more than 40,000 in attendance when he left in the seventh inning after striking out Carlos Guillen.
His pitch count rose early while he and Bonderman struggled to get a handle on plate umpire Charlie Reliford's inconsistent strike zone.
But once Santana got locked in, the Tigers didn't stand a chance. He struck out the side in the fourth and fifth and retired 10 of his last 11 batters.
The Tigers' bullpen has been just as shaky as Bonderman. Jordan Tata was the latest to struggle, giving up four runs and five hits in the seventh inning Sunday.
Despite their recent slide, the Tigers aren't panicking.
"It's Sept. 11 and we're in first place," manager Jim Leyland said. "There's no rah-rah speeches or anything. ... This is a grind, and you've got to grind it out for 162 games. It's quite simple that we've got to win some games."
- Twins DH Jason Kubel's single in the seventh snapped an 0-for-19 skid.
- Hunter was generously awarded a hit in the sixth when a sharply hit grounder went right through SS Carlos Guillen's legs.