Ervin Santana’s Journey to a No-Hitter

Ervin Santana in fall instructional league, October 5, 2000.

(Windows Media Player and a broadband Internet connection required to watch the videos linked in this article.)

Anaheim’s most significant international signing in recent years was Venezuelan Francisco Rodriguez. Santana is No. 2 with a bullet after agreeing to an undisclosed six-figure bonus last September. At 6-foot-2 with extremely long arms and fingers, Santana oozes the projectability the Angels covet. If his fastball gets any quicker he’ll be truly overpowering, because he already throws 90-93 mph with a peak of 95. His breaking ball and changeup are still works in progress. He flies open with his delivery and drags his arm when he throws his slider, but both it and his change should become at least average pitches. He’s more advanced than fellow Dominican Ramon Ortiz was when he joined the organization, and Ortiz was 19 to Santana’s 16. In 2001, Santana could pitch in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League or make his U.S. debut in the Pioneer League.

Baseball America 2001 Prospect Handbook

When he signed on September 2, 2000, Ervin Santana was neither Ervin nor 16.

Santana used the birth certificate of a relative to make the Angels think he was younger than he was. It was not an uncommon practice at the time. The name he gave was Johan Quezada Santana, with a date of birth of November 28, 1983. His real name was Ervin Ramon Santana, and he was born on December 12, 1982 — eleven months earlier than he claimed.

The discrepancy was discovered during the winter of 2002-2003, as part of an industry-wide investigation. Some Dominicans were found to be years older than they claimed, so eleven months wasn’t that big a deal.

I saw Ervin pitch for the Angels in fall instructional league on October 5, 2000. It was at the Angels’ old minor league complex, Gene Autry Park, in Mesa, Arizona. If it wasn’t his first start in the U.S., it was one of his first.

Look at his photo above. He was reed-thin. The Angels’ media guide next spring listed him as 6’2″, 150 lbs. That sounds about right.

He was very raw. BA analyst Jim Callis was correct about his mechanics. Ervin flew so wide open that I thought his head might snap off his neck. But that would be fixed with time.

Ervin Santana at Rookie-A Provo, August 27, 2001. That’s Pedro Liriano on the right.

Regardless of age or language barriers, I learned quickly that Ervin wasn’t shy. He was playful and outgoing. In the above photo, he and Pedro Liriano asked that I take their picture together. As I started to snap the photo, Ervin tipped his cap. Typical Ervin.

2002 at Low-A Cedar Rapids was his first full season. His ERA wasn’t all that great at 4.16, but he won 14 games and struck out 146 in 147 innings.

It was that winter we found out his real name was Ervin. Assigned in the spring of 2003 to High-A Rancho Cucamonga, the host parents hung the nickname “Magic” on him, a play on Lakers legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson. He had his glove inscribed “El Magic.”

The 2003 Quakes were predicted to be an historic team. Most of the Angels’ top prospects had converged on the opening day roster — Santana, Joe Torres, Casey Kotchman and Jeff Mathis. Dallas McPherson would arrive about a month later after a back injury in spring training that would ultimately derail his career. Mike Napoli was there too, although at the time we didn’t know he would work his way into prospect status from backup catcher and first baseman.

Others who played on the 2003 Quakes that eventually made it to the majors were Ryan Budde, Brian Esposito, Nick Gorneault, Tommy Murphy, Stephen Andrade, Edwar Ramirez, Steven Shell, Rich Thompson, and Jake Woods.

I videotaped a lot of raw footage that year, hoping to one day produce a documentary about that group once enough time had passed to give us a perspective on their careers. I still have the videos; perhaps 2013, their ten-year anniversary, would be a good time.

If you want to see Ervin pitching for Rancho in 2003, click here to watch a clip of him pitching at Inland Empire on April 20, 2003. That was his breakout season; Ervin was 10-2 with a 2.53 ERA in 20 starts. He struck out 130 in 124 2/3 innings. His opponents’ average of .212 was the lowest in the California League. Ervin finished 2003 with six starts at Double-A Arkansas.

By 2005, Santana was in the majors. His big-league debut was on May 17 at Cleveland. The game was forgettable. The first four batters hit for the cycle against him. But he was only 22, and had years of growth and maturity ahead of him.

We crossed paths for the first time in many years when I visited extended spring training in April 2009 at the Angels’ new minor league complex at Tempe Diablo. Ervin and John Lackey were there on rehab assignment. I filmed his bullpen session; click here to watch.

A week later, he pitched a rehab start at Rancho Cucamonga (click here to watch), six years after his All-Star year with the Quakes. His glove was still inscribed, “El Magic.”

May 4, 2009 … Ervin Santana wearing the “El Magic” glove during a rehab assignment at Rancho Cucamonga.

That was one of my last games at Rancho Cucamonga, as I moved to Florida a few weeks later.

Wednesday July 27, 2011 happened to be my off-day from work. The Angels were at Cleveland playing a day game. Santana was the starting pitcher.

By chance, I visited the Angels’ web site and saw Ervin had a no-hitter through five innings. It wasn’t available here on TV or radio, so I checked back on the web site once in a while.

As Ervin went into the 9th, MLB Network went live to Cleveland, picking up the Angels’ TV feed.

I got to see the final three outs, as Ervin pitched the first Angels’ no-hitter since 1990, and the first complete-game no-hitter since 1984.

Erick Aybar, one of this Dominican teammates, dumped the Gatorade bucket over Ervin’s head in the middle of a post-game interview with analyst Jose Mota. Their careers didn’t quite parallel in the Angels’ system, as Erick was usually a year or two behind Ervin. But no teammate was better suited for that prank than Erick.

Ervin Santana is now the toast of baseball, at least until his next start.

I began in 1998, so I “grew up” so to speak with many of the homegrown Angels on the parent club roster. With some, a special relationship develops, and you know that even though you’re separated by time and space you still have that special relationship. Around our house, he was always known as the “Ervin Baby,” one of the kids you really did feel like he was your son. I suspect at least two host families who once housed Ervin got a phone call last night from him.

Ervin always had a big heart — which is why he had room for so many of us.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s