For three straight innings in the middle of Tuesday night's game in the Rogers Centre, the Toronto Blue Jays put two runners on with one or no outs. Santiago kept damage to a minimum, allowing one unearned run during the stretch to lead the Angels to a 3-2 victory.
"For some reason, I've always liked pitching with guys on base," said Santiago, who allowed two runs — one earned — and four hits in seven innings, striking out five and walking three, to improve to 3-2 with a superb 2.25 earned-run average.
"Being a reliever forever, always coming in with guys on base, the situation came up a lot. I got comfortable with it. It didn't bother me. I just bear down, get even more aggressive and make sure I don't give in."
Santiago has stranded 42 baserunners in eight starts, and his strand rate of 86.8% — the percentage of players who reach base against him but don't score — was the fifth-highest in baseball entering Tuesday. He walks a tightrope at times but hasn't lost his balance much.
"There are a lot of things you can slice and dice, but right now, what Hector is doing is really impressive," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's staying ahead of a lot of the trouble he got into last year. He's commanding the ball better. He has the stuff to pitch out of jams, and he has."
Santiago went 0-6 with a 5.19 ERA in his first seven starts last season and was demoted to triple-A in May. He was recalled in June and bounced between the bullpen and rotation the rest of the year, going 6-3 with a 3.30 ERA in his final 21 games.
The Angels acquired young pitchers Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano over the winter, and both were expected to push Santiago for the fifth rotation spot. Santiago not only won the job, he's been one of the most consistent and effective starters in a rotation that leads the American League with a 3.52 ERA.
"It's his ability to throw strikes," catcher Chris Iannetta said, when asked the biggest difference in Santiago this year. "Last year, he could throw strikes to one side of the plate. This year, he can throw strikes to both sides with his fastball. His overall command is better."
That was apparent Tuesday when Santiago, relying heavily on an inside fastball, stifled a lineup that entered with the major league's best average (.328), on-base percentage (.377) and slugging percentage (.514) against left-handed pitchers.
"They've been chewing up some left-handed pitching," Scioscia said. "They let you know if you're missing your spots."
Santiago did miss a spot to the first batter he faced, and Josh Donaldson drove a ball over the center-field wall for a leadoff homer in the first. But Santiago retired 10 straight from the first to fourth innings.
Russell Martin and Danny Valencia singled with one out in the fourth, but Santiago struck out Chris Colabello, with Santiago throwing out Martin attempting to steal third for an inning-ending double play.
An Erick Aybar error, a walk and a sacrifice bunt put runners on second and third in the fifth. Santiago got Donaldson to hit a sacrifice fly and Jose Bautista, who hit a 461-foot homer into the third deck against left-hander Cesar Ramos on Monday, to pop out to first.
After a walk and a single to open the sixth, Santiago struck out Valencia looking, got Colabello to fly to center and struck out Kevin Pillar looking.
"His delivery is much more in control, he's in sync, you can see the rhythm he has," Scioscia said of Santiago. "He's not quite as herky jerky. He's not forcing things. He's got a real nice release point and is filling up the zone."