“I don’t know,” the often-erratic and rarely pitch-efficient left-hander said. “It was probably in high school.”
Actually, it was earlier this season, in a May 13 game against Colorado, but his performance Friday night — when he allowed one run and eight hits in seven innings, striking out seven and walking none — was still rare. It marked only the second time in his career that Santiago has gone at least six innings without a walk.
The reason was fairly obvious: Santiago threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of 28 batters while improving to 6-4 with a 2.33 earned-run average, the third-best ERA in the American League.
“That was phenomenal. That’s what I’ve been working for all year and something I want to keep working on,” Santiago said. “That’s how you have no walks. If you get first-pitch strikes, it changes the whole game. It’s hard to fall behind when you’re 0-and-1 on every guy.”
Santiago gave up a run in the first inning when Franklin Gutierrez and Nelson Cruz singled and Kyle Seager hit a two-out, run-scoring double to right-center. But Santiago got Mark Trumbo to pop out to first to end the inning and allowed only three runners to reach second base the rest of the night.
“That might have been the best game he’s pitched all year,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “His first-pitch strikes were off the charts. Everything he wanted to do, he did. You saw him pitch inside and change speeds. He used his breaking ball. That’s a terrific job from Hector.”
Santiago has been the Angels' most consistent starter all season, yielding one or fewer earned runs in 11 of his last 17 starts, and he has struck out 98 and walked just 34 in 108 1/3 innings, but was this his best game of the year?
“Definitely, 100 percent,” he said. “Every pitch I threw, I knew I could get it to where I wanted. My fastball was life. I got my cut-fastball back. I threw some good curves and sliders. I threw six screwballs today, though I don’t know if Chris [Iannetta, Angels catcher] knows that. A bunch of change-ups were good, some down, some straight. I just mixed it up.”
Santiago, who struggled early in 2014 and was demoted to the bullpen and then to triple-A in May, worked all winter to iron out a few mechanical flaws in his delivery and has focused this season on maintaining a straight line from the rubber to the plate and a clean, consistent delivery.
“Mike has done a terrific job with Hector,” Scioscia said, referring to pitching coach Mike Butcher. “If you look at where his balance is, where his delivery is … he’s maintained that late life and deception, but there’s no doubt that having a more repeatable delivery is part of his success and turnaround. He’s night and day from where he was last year.”
The question now is whether Santiago’s performance will earn him a trip to Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati.
Santiago was left off the team when rosters were announced Monday, but Oakland right-hander Sonny Gray, who is on the team, is scheduled to start Sunday, which would make him ineligible to pitch in the All-Star Game.
Once Gray pitches Sunday, the league will announce a replacement for him, and Santiago, whose ERA is actually lower than All-Star starters David Price (2.38), Chris Archer (2.74), Chris Sale (2.80) and Felix Hernandez (2.84), would be a leading replacement candidate.
Will Santiago keep his phone close to him this weekend as he awaits a possible All-Star call?
“It’s going to be taped to my hand,” he said.