ANAHEIM -- When Ervin Santana takes the mound these days, he isn't just pitching to win or to improve his numbers or even to help the Angels make the uphill climb to the playoffs.
In many ways, he's pitching for his future.
About seven weeks ago, while devastated by the home-run ball and struggling mightily with his command, it seemed practically a no-brainer that the Angels would decline Santana's $13 million club option for 2013, opting to let him walk as a free agent instead.
But perhaps, after continuing his sudden turnaround with seven innings of one-run ball in Friday night's 6-2 win over the White Sox, Santana is making that decision a little bit more difficult.
And if not, he's at least making himself a lot more appealing to other suitors.
"I don't even think about that," Santana stresses. "I'm just thinking about right now. And when they give me a chance to pitch, I'm just going to pitch and do my job. If it's going to happen [free agency], it's going to happen. But I'm not thinking about that."
Santana, with a 2.88 ERA since the start of August, may only have a couple of starts left in an Angels uniform, the only one he's worn since signing out of the Dominican Republic 12 years ago.
That's because the Angels only have 11 regular-season contests remaining. And although their most recent win allowed them to gain ground in the standings, moving to 3 1/2 games behind the Athletics for the second AL Wild Card spot, they still have a mountain to climb.
"You think it's a lot; you have to pretty much win four games and they have to lose four, but it can happen," outfielder Torii Hunter said, seemingly trying to convince himself. "It can happen. [The A's] play some pretty good teams."
That they do. They're playing at Yankee Stadium this weekend, where they lost in 10 innings on Friday, 2-1, then play four games in Texas, host the Mariners for three and finish the regular season with three more home games against the first-place Rangers.
But the Angels blew their chance in head-to-head matchups against Oakland. They came into Sept. 10 with only a one-game deficit for the final playoff spot, then dropped three of four at home to the A's, kicking off a 10-game span in which they won only four and put themselves in serious need of outside help.
"The mission's the same: We need to go out there every night and play with focus to put ourselves in a position to win games," manager Mike Scioscia said.
"We have to win," Hunter added. "That's the attitude we're going to bring every day: must win."
Santana began Friday's start by surrendering his Major League-leading 36th homer, this one courtesy of White Sox leadoff hitter Alejandro De Aza. For the Santana of most of this season, that would've probably been the beginning of a tailspin, which would've led to a few others, putting his team in a big early hole and ending his start early.
But Santana is different now, or perhaps he's just back to his old self.
Thanks in large part to a changeup he incorporated more frequently, the 29-year-old right-hander retired 21 of the next 23 batters he faced after that homer, finishing his outing by giving up two hits, walking one and striking out a career-high-tying 11.
"Tonight was probably the best I've ever seen him," White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said.
"Early, it looked like he wasn't going to be spotting it, but he found it pretty quick," White Sox skipper Robin Ventura added. "It was one of those where he was wild enough just to keep you guessing."
Eight of the Angels' nine starters had at least one hit, Mike Trout hit his 28th homer, while becoming only the fourth rookie since 1964 to score 120 runs, and the Angels scored five runs in the first four innings against Jake Peavy. Kendrys Morales homered in the second, his 21st, Albert Pujols dumped a two-run single into shallow center field in the third and Hunter laced a two-run single into left field in the fourth, providing Santana with more than enough cushion.
On July 21, after giving up six runs in 1 2/3 innings against the Rangers, Santana's ERA was at an even 6.00. Since then, he's 5-2 with a 3.08 ERA, notching seven quality starts, pitching seven full innings four times and dropping his ERA all the way to 4.93.
It's almost as if he's trying to prove something -- to the Angels, or perhaps some other team.
"I don't have to prove anything," Santana said. "I just have to believe in myself, trust my stuff and pitch."
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.