Santana makes another promising start

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Ervin Santana is not supposed to be doing this. He should be on another team, or in the bullpen, or pitching only at home, or something other than throwing one of the most impressive games in the last two decades – yes, that’s right – because pitchers who struggle like he did last year don’t generally recover, let alone dominate.

All apologies to Brandon Webb, but through baseball’s first five weeks, Santana has been its best pitcher, capped by his tour-de-force shutout Monday night in the Los Angeles Angels’ 4-0 victory against Kansas City. Santana joined teammate Joe Saunders, his competition in spring training for the Angels’ fifth-starter job, with a 6-0 record and best illustrates how Los Angeles can survive, let alone thrive, with the American League’s top record while Nos. 1 and 2 starters John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar mire on the disabled list.

The growth of the 25-year-old Santana into himself – his body, now more a man’s than a boy’s, and his stuff, always a man’s only now wielded by a pitcher – continues to accelerate at a Funny Car pace. Guaranteed a rotation spot only because of the injuries, Santana has forced the Angels to take notice, from the bat boy all the way to his erstwhile competitor from less than two months ago.

“I just want to hang out with him,” Saunders said. “He’s carrying us.”

His own contributions aside, Saunders has a point: Santana’s 2.02 earned-run average ranks fifth in the major leagues, and the Angels believe he’s reverting to the form that made him untouchable in trade talks when he first arrived from Double-A in 2005.

Not long thereafter, Santana’s 95-mph fastball and darting slider had proved hittable enough that every potential deal involving the Angels included his name. In a package for Joe Crede two years ago. The centerpiece of the proposed Mark Teixeira trade last season. Highlighting the Miguel Cabrera talks during this offseason. Santana was the Angels’ hot potato, and no one wanted to touch him.

Mainly because of last season.

“And right now, I’m 1,000 percent better,” Santana said.

He could flat-out stink and it would be about 500 percent. Santana was miserable last year, one poor start snowballing into another, the oddness of great starts at home followed by terrible ones on the road further bruising his psyche.

Santana finished the year with a 7-14 record and 5.76 ERA, frightening numbers made so by his travails away from Angel Stadium: 1-10 with an 8.38 ERA and 19 home runs allowed in 73 innings.

“Last year was purely mechanics,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “Early in the year, he threw the ball well for us. Everything was together. He lost it and struggled, and things got away from him because he wasn’t able to make pitches.”

On the road, Santana sulked. He hated talking about why he crumbled there and offered no viable explanation. It was nothing physical. Just a brain lock with a lost key.

Santana unwound during the offseason by playing for the Licey Tigers in the Dominican Republic and pitched well. He didn’t read newspapers or the Internet to keep up on the trade talks. He chose instead to cleanse himself of last season, rid all the bad memories. No obsessing over video, even though Scioscia called the problem mechanical. Santana resolved to do what he does, which is dare hitters to touch his fastball and put them away with the slider.

“I just forget what happened last year,” Santana said. “This is a new year. I just start pitching good and have to get better. I’m not focusing on what I do bad or what I did bad before.

“I know I’m a good pitcher. I had one bad year. That’s it.”

And it seems well-forgotten, particularly following Monday night’s start. Calling it one of the best in the last 20 years was no exaggeration. Only seven starters have thrown shutouts with at least nine strikeouts and done so in fewer than the 97 pitches Santana threw. His company is good, Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling, Roy Oswalt, Chris Carpenter and David Cone in his perfect game among them.

Of the 31 Royals at-bats, 21 took three or fewer pitches. In the remaining 10, Santana struck out seven hitters. Right-handed Royals went 2 for 21 against him, dropping righties’ batting average against Santana to .126. And even though he skews an extreme fly-ball pitcher, Santana pitched another game without giving up a home run, which, considering his propensity last year, either points to improved stuff or lots of luck.

Both could apply. Santana’s fastball velocity is up nearly 1½ mph from last season, and his last pitch of the day, a 96-mph dart, struck out Jose Guillen swinging. Against Kansas City, he relied nearly as much on a changeup that he rarely breaks out as he did his slider, which induces the majority of his ground balls. Whatever the case, in 49 innings, Santana has given up three home runs. In his first 49 innings last season, he yielded 11.

Santana called the performance the best of his career “so far,” making sure not to jump ahead “because we have a lot more starts to go.” The only other one that can rate is the second of his career, a five-hit shutout against the Chicago White Sox, whose manager, Ozzie Guillen, was stunned enough to say: “I thought we were facing the wrong Santana.”

Not quite yet. Johan’s got two Cy Young Awards, Ervin’s working on his second great month. Though that’s a start. And the Angels are glad he’s doing it with them.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, May 6, 2008