BOSTON -- As important as the game was in the American League West standings, the deeper meaning of Friday night's dramatic ninth-inning comeback against Boston's Eric Gagne was found in the big-picture scope. The Angels might have rediscovered the real Ervin Santana. For six innings, Santana was better than Red Sox righty Josh Beckett, who might be the most talented pitcher in baseball. It was stunning.
Retiring the first 13 hitters and 16 out of 17, twice striking out David Ortiz, Santana consistently hit 95-96 mph on the radar gun. The righty threw inside judiciously to keep hitters honest, and he also sprinkled in enough quality breaking balls and changeups to make that 95-96 look closer to 100 mph. The only Red Sox baserunner through the first five innings was J.D. Drew, who flared a broken-bat single to right. "That's probably the biggest statement that happened tonight," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said in the afterglow, affirming that Santana had pitched his way back into the rotation until further notice. "He's going to start next week [in Toronto] for us. That's very important -- to keep us moving in the right direction." Santana came into the season as the club's No. 3 starter, coming off a 16-8 season in '06. But he struggled out of the gate and never found a consistent groove, brooding after losses, grim-faced before his starts. This brilliant effort should loosen Santana up and give him the sense that he can be the dominant pitcher he has shown that he can be. "That was big, for Ervin and for us," Vladimir Guerrero said. "I think he will relax more now. This should give him confidence. You can't let things get you down. After I go 0-for-4, I don't worry. I know I have teammates who can get the job done." Because this is his third full season in the Majors, Santana seems older than 24. Boston all but threw a parade for Clay Buchholz after his solid effort in winning Friday's doubleheader opener. Buchholz, making his debut at 23, is just 20 months younger than Santana -- a man with 76 Major League starts and 33 wins. "I'm focusing on forgetting about the past, [about] what happened," Santana said, referring to the 5-11 record and 6.22 ERA he took to Triple-A Salt Lake for five starts. "I know everybody wants me here -- to pull myself together and pitch the way I can pitch is important now." Budde system: Not to be overlooked in Santana's glowing effort -- one earned run in 6 1/3 innings, no walks, four hits and five strikeouts -- was catcher Ryan Budde's role in his second Major League start behind the plate. Santana and Budde have been buddies since high Class A ball in 2003 in Rancho Cucamonga, where Santana led the California League with a 10-2 record and a 2.53 ERA. "I remember when I used to catch him, and he was lights-out," Budde said. "He threw with a good, quick pace, put the fastball where he wanted it and the slider where he wanted it. "After a game like that, I feel like I'm just as much a part of it as the pitcher. My game calling reflects on what I can do back there. He only shook me off a few times. I tell him to, but he doesn't want to." Budde's memorable night included his first big league hit, a shot through the middle for a single against the awesome Beckett. "He did a real good job with Ervin," Scioscia said of Budde, his backup catcher, pending the return of Mike Napoli to reclaim the No. 1 job from Jeff Mathis. "They were in sync. Ervin was throwing inside very well. Every pitcher needs to throw inside to be effective. "For Ervin, getting him to commit to a pitch, to throw the ball to a location, is important. I think Ryan did a terrific job with that." Colon improving: The Angels suddenly look deep again in their rotation. The back end, behind Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey and Jered Weaver, has been questionable, but now they have Joe Saunders, Santana and Dustin Moseley -- with Bartolo Colon a possibility as he rebounds from elbow issues. Colon had another "great" bullpen session before Saturday's game at Fenway Park, Scioscia said. The veteran right-hander is on schedule for a simulated game on Tuesday in Anaheim. Figgins' breakthrough: He'd faced Gagne four times before, striking out once without getting a hit, but Chone Figgins felt like he'd put together some good at-bats against the closer. "I really enjoyed that one," Figgins said of his clutch single to right in the ninth in the Angels' 7-5 win on Friday night. The hit moved Erick Aybar (pinch-running for Casey Kotchman after the latter's walk) to third base, preceding Orlando Cabrera's game-tying single and Guerrero's go-ahead two-run double. "He threw me all fastballs and one changeup," Figgins said of Gagne. "The one I hit was a fastball, inside. I don't think it's a matter of him losing velocity as much as feeling more comfortable with a guy when you've seen him. I'd had good at-bats with nothing to show for it, and I finally got one on him." Minor sensations: First baseman Michael Collins had a homer and six RBIs in Double-A Arkansas' 12-3 win over Corpus Christi on Friday. Winning pitcher Jeff Kennard is 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in 10 games since arriving in the deal that sent catcher Jose Molina to the Yankees. Kendry Morales continued his hot hitting (.338) for Triple-A Salt Lake, with two doubles and three RBIs in a 10-8 loss to Tucson. Howie Kendrick had an RBI single and scored twice in six at-bats. On Aug. 18 in Angels history: Tim Salmon went deep against Roger Clemens at Yankee Stadium in 2000, passing Brian Downing as the franchise leader with homer No. 223. Up next: Saunders (6-1, 3.50 ERA) will face right-hander Julian Tavarez (6-8, 5.12) on Sunday at 11:05 a.m. PT in the series finale at Fenway.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.