Santana's unlikely no-hitter nearly ended before it even began
Ervin Santana pitched the first solo no-hitter for the Angels in nearly 27 years
The leadoff batter reached on an error that easily could have been ruled a hit
Santana kept the Indians' off-balance by getting ahead and staying ahead
It could have been over before the fans had settled into their seats, before the chalk lines of the batter's boxes had been wiped out, before Ervin Santana had broken a sweat. On Santana's third delivery of the day, Indians rookie outfielder Ezequiel Carrera sliced a humpback liner almost directly at Angels shortstop Erick Aybar. The ball hit the ground about a foot in front of Aybar and, as they say, ate him up, bouncing off his chest and into short center field.
Watch any MLB game, any day, and you'll see a play like that or something similar ruled a hit. Official scorers have become gun-shy about assigning errors, knowing that by doing so they offend both the hitter and fielder, while labeling a play a hit ticks off only the pitcher. The Carrera ball was sharply struck and took a nasty hop, and had it been ruled a single, it is unlikely that anyone would have looked too carefully at the decision. Hits are safe; errors are dangerous.
Official scorer Bob Maver had other ideas, however, and hung the E around Aybar's neck. There was nothing wrong with this decision -- the play could have gone either way, probably 70/30 towards "error," and it's refreshing to see an official scorer hold fielders to a high standard. The only reason we even remember the decision is what followed: 27 outs without a hit. Ervin Santana, in his seventh season and making his 192nd career start, took advantage of that call, putting the Indians away with 10 strikeouts to throw the 272nd official no-hitter in major league history.
Santana was exceptional Wednesday afternoon, showing fantastic command and velocity, getting his fastball up to 95 mph at times -- including the last pitch of the game. He had excellent depth on his slider, getting swing-and-miss strikes with it and also using it as a waste pitch when ahead in the count. He was ahead in the count a lot. Santana started 15 of the 29 batters he faced 0-1, just 10 of them 1-0, in line with his seasonal rates. After that, though, he bore down. Santana walked just one man -- Lonnie Chisenhall in the eighth in a great eight-pitch battle. He was 2-0 to just one hitter all game. He had just two three-ball counts, where he'd have about five in a normal start. Santana threw 105 pitches, 76 of them for strikes, far ahead his career and seasonal marks: both a bit below 50 percent. By getting ahead and staying ahead, Santana was able to keep Indians' hitters off balance. He got 14 swing-and-miss strikes, eight of them to complete strikeouts.
The first-inning scorer's decision was as close as the Indians got all night to a hit. They drove almost no balls in play, getting just four outfield fly balls. They did hit a couple of hard foul balls, but nothing that really scared the line. The closest they came aside from Aybar's error was on a Jason Kipnis grounder up the middle in the sixth. Howie Kendrick ranged far to his right, backhanded the ball, set and threw out Kipnis. There were a handful of other near-misses -- Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner hit balls that might have been hits had it not been Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner running down to first. Santana helped himself in the sixth by knocking down an Austin Kearns ball through the box, and finding it -- after some searching, it was right by his feet -- to make the play. There was no DeWayne Wise moment, no Rusty Greer signature play to make the highlight reels. There were just fastballs and sliders, strikeouts and groundballs, all adding up to the highlight of a 28-year-old's life.
Santana, who heretofore may have been best known for some large home/road splits, has been having the second-best season of his career after his breakthrough 2008 campaign. His peripherals aren't quite as good as they were three years ago, when he struck out nearly five men for every one he walked, but whiffing 19.5 percent of batters while walking just 6.7 percent -- both figures second only to that '08 season -- is more than enough to keep runs off the board. Overshadowed by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren in Anaheim, Santana has reeled off six straight quality starts including today's no-no, and after a shaky April (4.89 ERA) has been a stellar 2.96 in 15 outings.
If there's one additional point to make about the no-hitter, it's to note the circumstances. Santana allowed an unearned run in the first, held the Indians close to allow his team to come back, and shut the door when they did. Santana pitched to exactly three batters in the game who weren't the tying, go-ahead or lead-stretching run. He did it for a team trying to keep pace with the Rangers in the AL West, while taking out a team battling for its own division crown. A no-hitter is always game-meaningful; Santana's was season-meaningful, potentially important in winning a championship. You couldn't ask for anything more.