SAN DIEGO, SEPT. 28 -- Benito Santiago had the inside track on the National League Rookie of the Year Award before he began his record 29-game hitting streak. But over the past five weeks, the San Diego Padres' talented catcher has made a shambles of the competition.

"I don't know who's going to even come close to him," said Jack McKeon, the Padres' vice president of baseball operations. "If this guy's not unanimous, I think the thing's rigged."

Unanimous or not, the 22-year-old Puerto Rican is expected to become only the fifth catcher and the first in 15 years to be so honored. The others were Johnny Bench and Earl Williams in the National League, and Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk in the American League.

That the Padres began the season with a 12-42 record and are destined to finish last in the NL West hasn't jeopardized Santiago's chances to become the sixth player since the 1969 expansion to be named his team's top rookie while playing for a last-place team. The most recent was Darryl Strawberry of the 1983 Mets.

"I know I've got a good chance, but I can't think about that now -- especially when the team is in last place," Santiago said. "I'm just trying to help win games and do the best I can."

Despite the Padres' woes, Santiago batted .319 over the first four weeks of the campaign before dropping to .283 by the all-star break. He slumped to a season-low .264 by Aug. 4, but he has raised his average to .298.

He had hit safely in 34 of his last 35 games through Sunday and owns the league's longest hitting streak of the season, second only to Paul Molitor's 39-game run with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Santiago put his 29-game streak on the line tonight against San Francisco relaxed and eager to carry it into next season.

"I don't think anybody's going to stop him this year, the way he's swinging the bat," said teammate Tony Gwynn, who held the previous club record with a 25-game streak. "You just wish there were more games left in the year to see how long he can go."

Santiago has hit .342 during the streak, which began on Aug. 25 after a zero-for-three game against New York's Dwight Gooden. Only three times during the 29 games did the Padres rookie need a hit in his final at-bat to prolong the streak. On Sunday, he kept it alive with an eighth-inning single against Fernando Valenzuela.

"He's just so comfortable at the plate and he's in a good groove," Gwynn said. "He's relaxed and he's not overswinging. He hits the ball to all fields and he's becoming a lot smarter hitter as the season goes on.

"It's not surprising to me that he's hit in 29 straight, but the fact that he's a rookie catcher and has so many other things to worry about besides hitting is what makes it more amazing."

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Santiago, who has the highest average among major league catchers this season, also has provided some punch and speed along with his consistency. His 17 home runs, 30 doubles, 76 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases in 32 attempts are no surprise to the front office, which dealt four-time all-star Terry Kennedy to the Baltimore Orioles last October because they felt confident that Santiago was ready to assume the role.

"We expected this out of him, but we didn't have any idea when," McKeon said.

Santiago admitted surprise at his production during a weekend visit to Los Angeles, during which he eclipsed the all-time rookie mark of 27 straight games held by James Williams of the 1899 Pittsburgh Pirates. Santiago didn't expect to get more than 13 homers and 50 RBI this year.

"At the beginning, I tried to go very hard and impress everybody," he said. "I chased too many bad pitches, and every time I had two strikes on me I'd swing at a pitch on the ground. But after a couple of months, I started relaxing, concentrating on what I was doing, and everything turned around."

Santiago has thrown out 41 potential base stealers in 131 attempts this season, and most of his 21 throwing errors were made early in the year.

"He's right out of the Tony Pena mold," Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia said. "He's got an outstanding arm, he moves well behind the plate and he's become much improved as far as receiving pitches."