Santana pitched eight strong innings in his final start before the playoffs, earning his 19th win and leading Minnesota to a 3-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night.
The Twins clinched a spot in the postseason by beating Kansas City on Monday night, and now they've set their sights on catching the first-place Tigers for the AL Central title. Detroit beat Toronto 4-3 Tuesday night, maintaining its one-game lead over Minnesota.
"We've had a great season so far, but we're not done yet," Santana said. "It feels good to finish strong and give my team a chance to win. Now I have to cheer these guys on so we can win the division."
Pinch-hitter Luis Rodriguez drove in the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly in the eighth. Santana (19-6) scattered seven hits, struck out five and retired 15 of his final 17 batters.
The Cy Young favorite improved to 16-0 over his last 23 starts at the Metrodome. The Twins haven't lost one of his home starts since Aug. 6, 2005.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Santana will make his next start in Game 1 of the division series next week. He would then be ready for a potential Game 5.
Santana has pitched 233 2/3 innings this season. Since the All-Star break, he also has battled a hangnail and a nagging hip injury.
"The rest will give him a week to prepare for Game 1," Gardenhire said. "It's a long season and he's got a lot of innings under his belt. It'll be good for him to catch his breath."
"That was just another unemotional, easy win for us," Gardenhire joked. "You'd think after last night things couldn't get any more exciting. I guess they can."
The Royals dropped their eighth straight game. One more loss will ensure them of a third consecutive 100-loss season.
"When you don't have all your guys you go to plan B," interim manager Billy Doran said. "Now we're on plan C. But you go with what you got and these kids are actually playing pretty well for me."
Justin Morneau started the eighth inning with an infield single. After diving out of the way of Morneau's shattered bat, Royals pitcher Joel Peralta was unable to cover first on a ball hit to first baseman Jeff Keppinger.
"We hadn't covered any drills for that one," Doran said. "That's a tough deal because it's human nature to take cover."
Torii Hunter followed with a single to left, and both runners advanced on a passed ball charged to catcher Paul Phillips.
Phillips was charged with another passed ball on the next pitch, but managed to throw out Morneau trying to score from third. Then Rodriguez's sacrifice fly to deep center scored Hunter.
Peralta (1-3) gave up one run in two innings in relief of starter Odalis Perez.
It's the fourth time in five seasons that the Twins have reached the playoffs. This year's team packs more offensive punch than the last three playoff squads, even though that wasn't apparent against Perez.
He held the Twins to two runs and seven hits over six innings.
Trailing 2-1, the Twins loaded the bases with none out in the sixth, but only managed to tie the game on Hunter's sacrifice fly.
The Royals scored first on Esteban German's two-run single in the third. Four of the first 11 Kansas City hitters reached base against Santana before he settled into a groove.
"He started throwing his slider and changeup over the plate and that made his fastball that much more effective," Minnesota catcher Mike Redmond said.
Lew Ford hit his fourth home run for the Twins (94-63) in the third. Redmond finished with three hits.
Santana said he feels no worse than usual for this time of the year, but welcomes the extra rest.
"I know exactly how my body is," he said. "Right now I'm fine, just some bumps and bruises. But basically I'm fine and ready to go in the postseason."
- Santana had been scheduled to start Sunday's regular-season finale against the White Sox.
- Boof Bonser will start Game 2 of the playoffs for the Twins. Brad Radke, who will return to the rotation on Thursday, could start Game 3. If Radke's injured pitching shoulder does not allow him to go after Thursday, Carlos Silva or Matt Garza will get the nod.
- Sanchez got his first major league hit with a single in the third inning.