KANSAS CITY -- The Minnesota Twins have surprised some people with their performance this season. That performance figures to become even better now. On Saturday, Ervin Santana returned to the Twins after an 80-game suspension for his use of a performance-enhancing drug. If Santana pitches to his career norms, he'll be a big help.
The Twins defeated the Royals, 5-3, Saturday night, giving them a 43-38 record and leaving them 3 1/2 games behind Kansas City in the American League Central. At the midpoint of the season, the minimum that can be said about the Twins is that they are in a Wild Card position.
And it is not as though their rotation needs a great deal of help. In the last two seasons, the Twins were 30th in the Majors in starters' earned run average. But this year, through 80 games, they were 12th.
Before his suspension, Santana was projected as the No. 2 starter in the Minnesota rotation, behind Phil Hughes. That would be exactly the spot that Santana's career suggests.
Santana's return bumps another pitcher out of the rotation, with Trevor May being moved to the bullpen for the short-term at least. But it wasn't as though the Twins were desperate for rotation help.
"No one pitched themselves out of the rotation," Twins manager Paul Molitor said.
The Twins have been getting top-shelf performances recently from Kyle Gibson, who shut out the Royals for eight innings in the first game of this series. Lefty Tommy Milone was described by Royals hitting coaching Dale Sveum as "pitching like Tom Glavine" over his last six or seven starts. Mike Pelfrey has been having a comeback season, although he was knocked out of Saturday's game in the fifth inning.
Still, Santana is a pitcher of proven ability and accomplishment, and the Twins are very happy to have him, no questions asked, or, at least, no really difficult, performance-enhancing substance questions asked.
"My feeling is that everyone here is happy to have him back," Molitor said. "I haven't heard anything conversely to that. He's an easy guy to like; personality-wise, teammate-wise, work-habit wise. That definitely helps."
Santana does smile easily. He managed several smiles during a session with the media in the Kauffman Stadium visitors' dugout. Some of the questions couldn't be pleasant, but Santana remained unruffled.
"I'm just trying to be me, always smiling like nothing happened," Santana said. "That's in the past. I'm trying to move forward, that's what I'm here for."
This exchange was interesting:
Reporter: "Do you feel like you did a bad thing?" Santana: "What do you think?"
Reporter: "I don't know what happened."
Santana: "Well, me neither. Just leave it at that. It's in the past and I'm just moving forward and I'm happy to be back."
The Twins are not in a judgmental mood about Santana, and that is understandable. They didn't have him for half of the regular season, but his offense, his punishment, his absence are all in the past now.
"You try to develop people in ways that lead to accountability in everything they do," Molitor said. "Everything is pretty exposed these days. In terms of whatever led up to what happened, it's not something that I feel I can change or control."
It has been said that adding a proven performer like Santana in midseason is like trading for a front-line pitcher. That's close, but not quite.
"Trades are a little more unexpected," Molitor said. "This one we knew was coming, it was just a matter of riding out the storm. So the impact might be the same but the mental part is different. This is more like a guy coming off an injury than a trade. You just knew that you had this guy who was going to be available."
One way or another, the Twins can legitimately feel that they have made a major midseason improvement with Santana's addition.
Santana did not challenge his suspension through an appeal process. Under the tougher policies now in place in baseball, he can pitch the second half of this season, but if the Twins qualify for the postseason, he would not be eligible for any postseason play this year.
"But at the same time, I'll be cheering for them and wishing for the best for our team," Santana said. "We just have to focus on right now."
"Right now" will start Sunday when Santana starts against the defending AL champion Royals at Kauffman Stadium. He has made his mistake. He has served his time. He has forfeited roughly $6.7 million in salary. The Twins can hope that this second chance will help the rest of the team get to the postseason.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.