PHILADELPHIA -- By the time the game ended, by the time a hailstorm of home run balls dropping into the blue seats at Citizens Bank Park had turned what had been a taut pitching duel into a slugfest, Ervin Santana's role in the Braves' 9-6 win over the Phillies had become largely an afterthought.

Which is both unfair and fitting at the same time.

Santana was an afterthought as a free agent last winter, even though he was coming off a season during which he made 32 starts, pitched 211 innings and posted a 3.24 earned run average for the Royals. But he didn't sign with the Braves until a couple of weeks into the Grapefruit League schedule. And Atlanta only made the move after losing two starters, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, within a week to Tommy John elbow surgery.

In just his second start for the Braves on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park, he allowed one run. It was only after he departed that the home run derby began.

After two starts in an Atlanta uniform, he has an 0.64 ERA. The Braves have won four straight and are in first place in the National League East. While many experts expected them to contend in the division at the start of Spring Training, many jumped off the bandwagon after injuries ravaged the rotation. And, truth be told, some doubt had crept into the clubhouse as well.

"We were lucky," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "We were lucky that he was still out there because I don't know what we would have done. And then for [general manager Frank Wren] and [club president John Schuerholz] and our chairman Terry McGuirk to go out and say, 'Go get him' -- it wasn't like it was a million dollars. So for them to say, 'We need him. Go get him,' really lifted our spirits up.

"We were kind of down a little bit and for them to do that was tremendous."

Santana signed a one-year contract for $14.1 million. He can also make $500,000 for winning the Cy Young Award (or $250,000 for second or $100,000 for third), $250,000 for making the All-Star team, $250,000 for winning World Series MVP or $100,000 for League Championship Series MVP.

Added second baseman Dan Uggla, who hit two of Atlanta's five home runs Monday, including the game-winning grand slam in the top of the ninth: "We're so glad he's on our team. He comes out and does his thing. He takes it very seriously. He was electric in this game, throwing hard. His stuff was sharp. His changeup was nasty. Everything was nasty. He was awesome."

Asked if he was amazed that Santana was still available at that late date, Uggla smiled.

"Yes. Amazed and very happy," said Uggla. "Very happy that we went out and got him. It was a huge, huge pickup. And it sends a great message. Our morale was pretty low and they picked it right back up by going out and getting him."

Santana has pitched so far as though he has a chip on his shoulder, that he's out to prove that all the teams that let him sit out there so long made a mistake. He insists that's not his intention.

"I don't have to prove anything. Just be me. I know what I can do. A lot of people know what I can do. So I just have to be me every time I take the mound," he said. "It was tough because the Draft compensation was part of the deal. So it was tough for me to get a job. I don't wish anything bad for anybody. But when injuries happen, it's part of the game. So they reached out to me and I said, 'Let's do it.'"

Santana struck out 11, tying his career high. He's done it three times, most recently against the White Sox on Sept. 21, 2012. It was also his 12th career double-digit strikeout game.

He finished with a flourish, whiffing five of the last seven batters he faced, but Gonzalez didn't hesitate to take him out after that, partly as a concession to his abbreviated spring.

"That was part of the game plan going in," the manager explained. "He had [96] pitches and they had people on base. There were a lot of taxing innings. We'll build off that in his next start, give him another 10 or 15 and hopefully that will get him to a situation where you're not worried about throwing him 125.

"He has [exceeded even what we expected]. I've been so impressed with him. He's been able to mix his pitches and, oh by the way, it's still 93, 94 miles an hour. He's got command, he's got some life. He's got some other stuff. He knows how to pitch. We've been really, really happy with him."

The Braves aren't really sure exactly why Santana was available when they developed a sudden need for starting pitching in March. They're just grateful that he was.