Ervin Santana key to Angels' hopes in West

The camera closes in close on Ervin Santana, his face a blank state of concentration, cap slightly askew, his red Louisville Slugger TPX glove awaiting the return throw from the third baseman.

Bottom of the ninth, two outs. No-hitter on the line. Santana looks as if he’s not even sweating on an 80-degree day in Cleveland.

Santana throws a 93 mph fastball down the middle to Michael Brantley for strike one. The next pitch is another fastball, 95 according to the TV monitor, probably Santana’s fastest of the game, given that he usually throws 92-93. Brantley swings and lofts a routine fly to center that Peter Bourjos camps under.

No-hitter, mob scene at the mound. One of baseball’s beautiful moments, a joyful explosion of teammates celebrating that rare achievement of skill and luck coming together at just the right moment.

Santana made his first splash in the big leagues in the 2005 AL Division Series, a 22-year-old rookie thrust into Game 5 after Bartolo Colon had to leave after 23 pitches with a sore shoulder. Santana came in and walked the first two batters he faced, leading to two runs, but Mike Scioscia stuck with him and he settled down, not allowing another run until Derek Jeter’s home run in the seventh. The Angels eliminated the Yankees with a 5-3 win, and many projected big things from Santana after that.

He’s been inconsistent since then, however, having a big year in 2008 (16-7, 3.49 ERA) and a decent season in 2010 (17-10, 3.92 ERA) but mixing in a 5.76 ERA in 2007 and 5.03 in 2009, both years when he missed time with injuries. The home run has always been his problem; he relies on a slider as his strikeout pitch, and sometimes he hangs it. He allowed 27 home runs last year, sixth most in the American League, and has allowed 17 this season, also sixth most.

But the slider was biting hard Wednesday, and the Indians couldn’t do anything with it. Santana struck out 10 and walked just one. Yes, he gave up a run in the first inning -- an error, stolen base and wild pitch led to the unearned run, the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter and allow a run since Darryl Kile of the Astros in 1993. It was the eighth no-hitter in Angels history, the first since Mike Witt’s perfect game on the final day of the 1984 season.

It also moved the Angels just 2.5 games behind the Rangers. Suddenly, the Angels’ rotation trio of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Santana is looking mighty tough. Santana started slow, with a 4.89 ERA in April, but hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a game in his past eight starts, lowering his ERA to 3.47, with a nifty strikeout-walk ratio of 123 to 40.

Last week when the Rangers won the first of a three-game series against the Angels, they pushed their lead to five games. It looked as if they were ready to pull away. But the Angels won the next two games by one run, including a 1-0 shutout by Weaver.

Weaver has been doing that all year. If Santana can keep going like this, we’re going to see a great battle in the AL West.