Throwing mid-90s fastballs in good locations and complementing the heater with quality offspeed stuff, Santana was brilliant on Saturday evening at Angel Stadium in a 4-1 victory over the Mariners in front of a crowd of 43,959.
"This might have been the best stuff we've ever seen him have," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He was really loaded. Ervin pitched a great game. It was a big boost for us."
Asked if this was the best of his 86 career starts in the Majors, Santana agreed with his skipper.
"I think that's the one," he said, nodding. "So far, right now."
In the background, Joe Saunders was expressing admiration for Santana's work, saying, "Painting ... with 97 [mph fastballs]."
Expected to duel this spring for the fifth-starter's job, Santana and Saunders have stepped into bigger roles with John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar sidelined -- and both have flourished.
They've each started the season 3-0, and their ERAs -- 2.15 for Saunders, 2.67 for Santana -- are among the best in the American League in four trips through the rotation.
"Maybe they'll be our John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar -- what they were last year -- this season," Scioscia said. "They have the potential to do that. If they keep throwing consistently the way they have from Spring Training through now, that'll be big for us."
Scot Shields, giving K-Rod a day off, worked a scoreless ninth to notch his first save since May 4, against the White Sox.
"I told [pitching coach Mike] Butcher that he worked both sides of the plate like I haven't seen in a long time," Shields said of Santana. "He kept them off-balance and elevated when he needed to. That was a beautiful game to watch."
It ended with the artistic merit of a double play drawn off the hot bat of Raul Ibanez by Shields, started by Erick Aybar at shortstop and turned by second baseman Sean Rodriguez.
Two innings earlier, Rodriguez had delivered his first Major League hit, a clean single to left against losing pitcher Jarrod Washburn, the former Angels ace.
Rodriguez would remember this night fondly, and so would Santana.
A one-out double in the second inning by Greg Norton was the sum total of the Seattle offense until Adrian Beltre got fully extended and lifted a solo homer to left in the seventh, Santana having retired 16 in a row.
"That was a slider he had to go out and get," Santana said.
Moving to 3-0, he allowed only three hits and no walks in eight innings and finished with eight strikeouts, punching out the final two men he faced.
Catcher Jeff Mathis quickly saw that Santana was putting his fastball wherever he placed his glove and called it "at least 80 percent of the time." The slider was a superb second pitch, with the changeup effective in small doses.
"I came up with him in the Minor Leagues," Mathis said, "and that was the best I've seen him in a long time -- maybe ever."
The difference in Santana from last season, when he plunged to 7-14 and was demoted to Triple-A Salt Lake at midseason, is "night and day," Mathis added.
After dropping the first two in Seattle last weekend, the Angels have taken three in a row from the Mariners, who have dropped 13 of their past 16 at Angel Stadium. Seattle is 10-24 in the past 34 games of the series.
"Any time you play within your division, games are important," Washburn said, having fallen to 1-3. "I don't think it is any secret that they are the team to beat in the division. We played a good series against them at our place, but haven't played that well the first two games. We had a chance last night, [but] Torii [Hunter] took the game away from us."
Hunter, who ended Friday night's game by snatching Richie Sexson's bid for a two-run, game-turning homer, got the Angels' offense rolling again.
After drilling three doubles and getting robbed of a fourth on Friday night, Hunter slashed a leadoff double in the second. Juan Rivera's single moved Hunter to third, and he scored on Mathis' sacrifice fly.
Singles by Robb Quinlan and Mathis and a two-out single by Aybar made it 3-0 in the fourth, and Chone Figgins -- extending his hitting streak to 11 games -- singled home Aybar.
Figgins had made a backhanded stab of Ichiro Suzuki's leadoff bullet to take extra bases away and set Santana off in the right direction.
"The first out is always the big one," said Santana, who produced 23 more in a dominant effort.