Ervin Santana was finally able to smile again on Sunday.
Wait, he always smiles. He smiles after getting clobbered, he smiles after watching home runs disappear over the fence, he probably smiles as the dentist sticks a drill in his mouth.
But Sunday’s grin was the smile of a winner. Hard to tell the difference, perhaps, but the Twins could definitely see the change after the veteran righthander supplied seven shutout innings against Houston and recorded his first victory in more than a month, 7-5 at Target Field.
“Of course [I smile], but don’t put it the wrong way. I know I’ve been pitching bad,” Santana said after earning his first home-field victory with the Twins by limiting the Astros to six hits and never allowing a baserunner to advance beyond second base. “I’ve been smiling because I’m frustrated. I know I can be pitching better than that. So that’s why.”
That might not be the normal reaction to a stretch like the one Santana just endured: Six straight starts with no wins, an average of just five innings, more walks than strikeouts, and a horrendous ERA of 9.20. But the Twins never mistook his carefree air for indifference toward his failures.
“I know he’s got a little bit different demeanor, he’s not a real external guy in terms of what you see out there,” Molitor said. “But I know that’s not indicative of the passion and the competitiveness that he has. I know he wants to help us out here.”
He succeeded on Sunday, and became the first Twins starter in nine games to complete six innings, mostly by rediscovering the fastball command that deserted him a month ago. Santana struck out 10 and didn’t issue a walk, becoming just the second Twins pitcher in the past five seasons — along with Trevor May last Sept. 14 — to post a 10-and-zero game. (Of course, the Astros, who lead the AL in strikeouts, make it easier — Santana is the 16th pitcher to reach double digits against them.)
“We did some downhill drills this week, just to get his front side out more and make sure he gets on a downward plane,” said pitching coach Neil Allen. “You want your body to be going north and south, not east and west, as you release. He worked his tail off this week, and it was better. Not where we want it to be yet, but better.”
Santana (3-4) got some help, certainly. He and Eduardo Escobar successfully picked Carlos Gomez off second base to end the second inning, and catcher Chris Herrmann threw out Marwin Gonzalez on a steal attempt to end the fourth. And with two runners on base in the sixth inning, when Evan Gattis blooped a pop-up into shallow left-center, Byron Buxton came streaking in from about 50 yards away to make a knee-high running catch.
“Those are big outs, especially when you’re dangling in a one-run game,” Molitor said of the run-saving plays. “When you’ve got closing speed like that, it just makes a huge difference. It really helps contain an inning where they’ve got something going.”
The Twins didn’t have much going against Houston starter Lance McCullers, who gave up a run on three walks and a sacrifice fly in the first inning, then virtually nothing for the next four innings. In the sixth, Eduardo Nunez connected on a two-run homer that bounced off the upper-deck facade and gave the Twins a 3-0 lead.
It became 7-0 when the Twins strung together four straight hits off Houston relievers in the seventh, capped by Miguel Sano’s two-run homer to left. But the Astros struck back with five in the ninth on home runs by Chris Carter — his three-run shot hit high up the batter’s eye in center — and Jose Altuve.
Fortunately for the Twins, Santana had given them room to work with.
“We’ve been looking for that start to pick us up a little bit, and Ervin was able to get it done today,” Molitor said after his team won its third straight series and remained a half-game behind Texas in the wild-card race. “I tried to focus on the catcher’s glove today to see how he was doing with location, and it was good. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was definitely a step in the right direction.”
It was good enough to make him smile, anyway.