Santana had a rough beginning in that first start May 17 in Cleveland, giving up a cycle -- single, double, triple, home run -- to the first four batters he faced in an ugly, four-inning, six-run loss.
But Santana bounced back in his next start six days later, shutting out the Chicago White Sox in Angel Stadium on five hits, striking out seven and showing the team he belonged in the big leagues.
He went 12-8 overall with a 4.65 ERA, was 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA in his last four starts, went 9-3 with a 3.18 ERA at home and beat the Oakland A's in the team's division-clinching win Sept. 27.
"The thing that impresses all of us the most about him is that when the games get bigger, he pitches better," Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly said. "He's been huge for us down the stretch."
Never more huge than in the deciding Game 5 of the American League Division Series, when Santana, bumped to the bullpen for the playoffs, relieved injured No. 1 starter Bartolo Colon in the second inning and responded with 5 1/3 frames of three-run ball that allowed the Angels to come back for a 5-3 victory over the Yankees that sent them to the AL Championship Series against Chicago.
"Santana has been just what we needed when he came up and filled the spot in our rotation early on when Kelvim was down," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
"We kept waiting for Santana to show some signs of wear and tear. He threw only 40-some innings last year in the Minor Leagues. This is by far his highest workload that he's had in his career, and he hasn't lost a step.
"He's been incredible, and the games he pitched down the stretch for us to get into the playoffs, obviously the job he did against the Yankees in the Division Series was noted and was incredible. He just keeps going."
He'll keep going Saturday in Game 4 of the ALCS, his first as an official starter in the postseason, and Angels pitching coach Bud Black said he's expecting more of the same things he saw in the ALDS: poise, understated intensity and, above everything else, talent.
"Ervin has tons of ability," Black said. "That's the first thing that really impresses me about him. He's got a great fastball, mid-90s, plus a good slider and a developing changeup. He's composed out there. He also has excellent mechanics. He's the whole package."
Santana, a quiet kid from the Dominican Republic, always seems happy. It's as if the stressful whirlwind of October baseball hasn't really sunk in yet.
"I feel really good about myself because it seems like at the right time I'm able to get the job done, and that makes me feel very happy," Santana said through an interpreter.
"I'm very aware of how good the White Sox were at that time when I faced them, which also helped me to become a better pitcher, knowing that I beat the White Sox in the game that I'll pitch here to follow up.
"And that was like a confidence boost for the rest of the season for me."