MINNEAPOLIS -- Dueling aces. The big pitching matchup.
There was a time when this was a staple of every ball fan's diet. Wait a few weeks and there would be a classic joust of top guns. Smoky Joe Wood vs. Walter Johnson. Dizzy Dean vs. Carl Hubbell. Sandy Koufax vs. Juan Marichal. Steve Carlton vs. Nolan Ryan.
Sadly, the big matchup has gone the way of the bullpen cart, the complete game, and ``taking infield" after batting practice. Outside of Opening Day, it hardly happens anymore.
We had one last night during the first eight innings of the Red Sox' 12-inning, 5-2 loss to the Twins -- an Instant Classic if ESPN is looking. Outlined against the blue-gray Teflon sky of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Red Sox stopper Curt Schilling and Twins ace Johan Santana locked up in an old-fashioned mound mano-a-mano. Both threw zeros for six innings, yielded solo homers in the seventh, and left after eight. Neither deserved to lose -- that chore was left to Sox righty Julian Tavarez, who coughed it up after a night of scintillating baseball.
Santana fanned 13, walked none, and 75 of his 102 pitches were strikes. Schilling struck out five, walked one, and 61 of his 91 pitches were strikes. It wasn't Warren Spahn vs. Juan Marichal, circa 1963 (1-0 win for Juan in 16 innings), but it was a pretty good exhibition of mound mastery by two of the better pitchers in the game today.
``They both dealt," said Sox pitching coach Al Nipper. ``Schill was moving the ball around, throwing his two-seamer. Very economical. He deserved a better fate. And their guy . . ."
Ah, their guy. ``That's how he is every day," said David Ortiz, who struck out twice against Santana. ``Every time I see him he's like that. That's why he's Cy Young."
Santana has a Cy Young trophy in his house, and he was the reason nobody wanted to play the Twins in a first-round, five-game series back in October of 2004. He leads the majors in strikeouts since the start of the 2004 season and has allowed the lowest batting average (.207) in the big leagues over that same period. Only 27 years old, the Venezuelan lefty has it all in front of him.
Schilling's best years are behind him, but that didn't stop him from going into last night's game with nine wins, tied for tops in baseball. He's a 200-plus-game winner with three 20-win seasons on his résumé. Only 14 pitchers in baseball history have more strikeouts. He's been a World Series co-MVP. And let's never forget that he delivered Ohio for Geroge W. Bush in 2004.
So this joust had a fall-spring feel to it, just like when an aging Spahn got into it with young Marichal. Willie Mays won that game with a homer off Spahn, who kept telling his manager that he wasn't coming out if the kid wasn't coming out. Schill last night came out as soon as Santana came out, even though Schilling had thrown only 91 pitches and averages 108 per start.
``When he says he's done, I would never do that [send him back out]," said Sox manager Terry Francona.
Santana looked pretty sharp in the first inning, striking out the side on 12 pitches. He fanned Manny Ramírez and Jason Varitek to open the second before Mike Lowell managed to fly to center. Five strikeouts in the first two innings: That's how Roger Clemens started against Seattle on April 29, 1986.
Santana punched out Kevin Youkilis to start the third. White-hot Trot Nixon roped a double to left-center, then took third on a hard single to left by Alex Gonzalez. For Santana, it was time to bear down: The southpaw stuck out Crisp and got Mark Loretta on a popup.
In the bottom of the first, Schilling walked leadoff batter Luis Castillo. It was Schilling's first walk in six games, covering 34 2/3 innings. Schilling induced double play grounders to get through the first and second and it was 0-0 at the end of three.
Ortiz struck out to open the fourth, giving Santana 1,000 for his career -- and eight for the night! Both starters had two-hit shutouts through four innings. But while Schilling was killing them softly, Santana was slicing through the Sox like buttah. Lowell, Youkilis, and Nixon all went down swinging in the fifth, giving the Minnesota lefty 11 strikeouts in five innings.
Torii Hunter ripped a one-out single to center in the bottom of the fifth. Hunter stole second but was gunned down when he broke for third on Jason Kubel's swinging third strike. Pitch count through five: Santana 66, Schilling 60.
Gonzalez struck out to start the sixth, which meant that every member of the Sox' starting lineup had already fanned at least once.
With two out and nobody aboard in the seventh, Varitek stopped the madness, hitting a first-pitch heat-seeking missile into the stands in left-center.
Schilling got the first two batters in the bottom of the inning, giving him 3,000 career innings, then surrendered a game-tying homer to Michael Cuddyer on an 0-and-2 pitch.
Santana blinked first. With the score tied, 1-1 after eight, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire turned the game over to Joe Nathan. In the bottom of the ninth, Francona gave the ball to Jonathan Papelpon.
``Yeah, it was a game," said Schilling. ``The important thing for me was that I didn't get caught up in what [Santana] was doing. I was not trying to match him strikeout for strikeout because I couldn't."
He did match the young gun. He just couldn't go any longer than the kid went. And when it came down to a battle of bullpens, Boston lost.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.