He rose to the occasion, and they rose to salute him. If improbable moments make for a special season, then the Angels could be bound for glory: Ervin Santana was serenaded with a standing ovation.
He left the mound in disgrace in his previous start, in triumph in this one. He waved his cap at the Angel Stadium crowd, beneath a scoreboard that depicted his mastery in zeros, six of them.
Santana, who had exhausted the patience of many fans even as team officials extended him another chance, pitched 6 1/3 shutout innings on Monday, leading the Angels to a 9-5 victory over the Oakland Athletics. The Angels maintained their 6 1/2 -game lead over the Seattle Mariners and reduced their magic number for clinching the American League West title to 20.
Angels Manager Mike Scioscia was so appreciative that, when he went to the mound to remove Santana, he realized the usual pat on the butt would not suffice. Scioscia stopped Santana, looked him directly in the eye and told him how terrific his game had been.
"It's definitely a step forward for Ervin," Scioscia said. "Hopefully, he can keep carrying it forward."
The A's awoke when Santana departed, scoring five runs in the final two innings. The Angels had more than enough of a cushion, thanks to home runs from Garret Anderson, Jeff Mathis and Gary Matthews Jr. Mathis keyed a five-run fifth inning with his third homer in six games.
On an evening when the temperature at game time read 100 degrees, Santana rebounded from a shaky start -- three walks to the first six batters -- by scattering two hits over 6 1/3 innings. He recorded his first victory since June 9 and left to that standing ovation.
"I'm very happy because, even with all the struggles, I feel I have their support," Santana said through an interpreter. "The fans supported me. That was the biggest thing."
That he pitched well was not entirely unexpected. He is 5-3 with a 3.46 earned-run average at home, 1-9 and 8.72 on the road. He also is 7-1 with a 1.40 ERA against the A's.
But his inconsistency had so baffled the Angels that they sent him to the minor leagues in July. They brought him back 18 days ago, and he delivered an excellent start, then a poor start, then an awful one -- one-third of an inning, five runs.
And he got another one, and he sparkled, and who knows? One start, no matter how good, tells nothing about consistency.
Yet, within the start, there was an outstanding sign, a hint of maturity for a pitcher prone to losing confidence and poise. In the fifth inning, with the Angels up 2-0, the A's got the potential tying runs on base on a walk and an error.
Pitching coach Mike Butcher hustled to the mound to steady Santana. Santana got Shannon Stewart to fly out for the second out. And then, with a full count on Nick Swisher, with the crowd cheering Santana on, with the anticipation building, Santana did not give in to the moment.
He did not let his excitement get the better of him. He did not try to throw the hardest fastball ever. He calmly dropped in a slider, at 82 mph, for the third strike and the third out.
"I called fastball away," said Mathis, the catcher. "He shook me off and called a slider. And he made a great pitch."