ANAHEIM -- Was Wednesday night simply a case of facing an offense that ranks ninth in the American League in runs, and being helped by an early five-run cushion? Or is Ervin Santana back to being his old self again?
Right now, in this critical juncture that has seen the rotation and the overall team struggle, is Santana finally reverting back to the guy the Angels expected all along?
"I'm always thinking like that," Santana said when posed that question after the Angels' 8-4 victory. "I don't have the good results sometimes, but I know I'm a good pitcher."
Santana was a good pitcher in the series finale against the Indians. Not good relative to the circumstances of his dismal season, like he had been over his last three starts. But legitimately good, for the first time in a long time.
While the Angels torched Roberto Hernandez in his first start of 2012, scoring eight runs on 10 hits in the first six frames, Santana gave up just one run in seven crisp innings to claim the win and lead his team to their first series victory in three weeks.
For Santana, catcher Chris Iannetta will tell you, success is very simple.
"Controlling counts and throwing strike one," Iannetta said. "That's pretty much it. It's not major differences from when he was pitching before to now. It just goes to show you how subtle this game is, and the differences between you doing very well and struggling a little bit."
In support of Santana, Kendrys Morales had three hits, Mike Trout and Iannetta each homered, and the Angels scored five runs in a back-breaking second inning off Hernandez, the previously named Fausto Carmona who was charged with identity fraud in January and couldn't leave the Dominican Republic until obtaining a visa on July 21.
That provided enough support for the usual late bullpen blow-up, allowing the Angels to win back-to-back games for the first time in August and gain ground in the standings for a second straight day. They're now in a second-place tie with the Athletics and six games back of the first-place Rangers in the American League West.
But the Angels -- 3-3 on this crucial homestand, 14-18 to start a sputtering second half -- still have plenty of work to do. And it starts internally.
"We have a lot of baseball ahead of us, and we have a lot of things we need to do on the field to give ourselves a chance to win," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Things are going to get jumbled up when you start to look at who's in your division, where you are, who's in the Wild Card. Our focus has to be in-house for us to play good baseball, and these last two games we were able to play at a higher level."
Santana had a 4.67 ERA over his last three starts, which was considered an improvement after giving up six runs and recording five outs against the Rangers on July 21. Facing the same team that torched him for eight runs in 1 1/3 innings on July 4, Santana had one of his best outings of a dismal 2012 season, scattering four hits, walking just one, striking out four and at one point retiring nine straight batters.
Santana got ahead on 16 of the 25 batters he faced, and when he got behind, he effectively used a slider that has looked a lot more crisp lately.
"He had a good feel for it today," Indians manager Manny Acta said, "so that was key for him and we never adjusted to it."
It was the first time since June 23 that Santana pitched seven full innings, the seventh time in 23 starts that he hasn't given up a home run and the 10th time he's notched a quality start, putting him at 6-10 with a 5.59 ERA on the year.
"I'm very happy with my performance," Santana said, "because at this time in the season, that's what we need, and everything's going my way right now."
But was this just a tease -- like when he gave up two earned runs in 17 innings over a two-start stretch in mid-June, then proceeded to post a 13.50 ERA over his next four outings?
Or is Santana back?
"He's closer," a cautiously optimistic Scioscia said. "His breaking ball is more consistent, but maybe not quite where we've seen it before. I think that he's much closer. We're obviously happy with the strides he's made, and he's pitching at the level that we need. But there's still more in Ervin, and hopefully we're going to be able to grow with it."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.