SAN DIEGO, OCT. 2 -- The San Diego Padres' Benito Santiago, who proclaimed himself National League rookie of the year in April, apparently knew what he was talking about. It's now October, and he hasn't had a hitless game since August. If you're counting, it's a 34-game hitting streak -- longest ever for a rookie and longest ever for a catcher.
He got the 34th tonight against the Los Angeles Dodgers, doubling in the first inning here on Fernando Valenzuela's 2-2 pitch. He went hitless his next two trips, then left the game in the fifth inning of the 10-3 loss.
Santiago -- otherwise known as "Benito the Bandito" -- hates to say "I told you so," but that's what he was saying the other day.
"I told you so, man," he said. "I told you in spring training I'd be rookie of the year."
But he never predicted this hitting streak. He tends to swing at balls over his head, which is why he also hasn't drawn a walk since August. Hitting streaks are usually reserved for singles hitters, but he says he is a doubles hitter.
"This streak is a shock to me," he said. "Because if you think about it, I'm a free swinger."
In his own way, he's also a free spirit. A native of Isabel, Puerto Rico, he speaks half-English/half-Spanish to teammates -- which can be fun around the batting cage, but also a nuisance out on the mound. Earlier this year, Padres pitcher Eric Show waved Santiago back to home plate because Show said they had nothing intelligent to say to each other.
Show, just the other day, recreated a typical conference on the mound with Santiago:
Santiago: "Yo, big guy, how do you wanna pitch this guy?"
Show: "What do you think, Benny?"
Santiago: "Yo, big guy, whichever way you want to go."
Show: "Okay, Benny."
Actually, Santiago's English has come a long way. When the Padres traded catcher Terry Kennedy to the Baltimore Orioles last winter, team officials said they were concerned about the potential language barrier between Santiago and his pitchers. But he went out and bought English grammar cassettes and sat in bed every night learning how to pronounce "fastball."
"He knows what the hell he's talking about," Manager Larry Bowa said. "Sometimes, he plays dumb. He'll say, 'No comprendo, man.' But he knows."
A few years back, Padres scouts searched Puerto Rico to find him. He was a skinny 17-year-old, and now he's a skinny 22-year-old. According to Tom Romenesko, the Padres' farm director, Santiago grew up in poverty and never saw a dentist until he reached the minor leagues. He had an abscessed tooth one season and lost much of his strength. He needed 16 crowns, and the dentist's bill came to $5,000. The Padres paid, figuring it a good investment.
A year ago, at Class AAA Las Vegas, he hit .287, but finished second to Vancouver's B.J. Surhoff in all-star balloting. Las Vegas and Vancouver met in the playoffs, and Surhoff had a passed ball one game. Santiago poked Bowa (his manager then, too) in the ribs and said: "All-star catcher, my rear end."
Santiago has had his share of passed balls this season but has made up for it with his throwing. They call him "Benito the Bandito" because they say his arm is like a gun. He picked off Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt at second base one day, just because Schmidt put his head down for a split second. "Runners take Little League leads off him," Bowa said. "They're paranoid."
The Padres like to use a stopwatch on his throws, starting from the time he first touches the ball to the time it reaches the second baseman. According to coach Greg Riddoch, he has thrown out the NL's two best runners, Vince Coleman in 1.68 seconds and Eric Davis in 1.67 seconds.
"Scouts say anything around two seconds is decent," Riddoch said.
Defense was supposedly Santiago's strength, so no one here expected him to hit much. In spring training, he told Tony Gwynn he'd hit 15 homers and drive in 80 runs, and Gwynn remembers thinking: "This ain't AAA, kid." But, after the first inning tonight, Santiago was batting .301 with 18 homers and 79 RBI.
If he extends his streak to 36 Sunday, he must wait all winter to continue. Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game streak would technically be safe because it was in one season.
"Too bad," Santiago said. "I wish I'd started this thing earlier."
In St. Louis, a crowd of 45,517 left the Cardinals only 16,613 short of becoming the third major-league team to reach three million mark in a season. They were treated to a 3-2 victory over the New York Mets, a game made meaningless Thursday night when the Cardinals clinched the NL East title. John Tudor (10-2) tuned up for the playoffs with his seventh straight victory.
In Montreal, Neal Heaton of the Expos won for the first time in two months, 7-1, over the Chicago Cubs.
In Pittsburgh, Darnell Coles broke a seventh-inning tie with a two-out single that helped the Pirates beat the Phillies, 6-4.
The Giants got their 11th pinch hit homer of the season, this one from Francisco Melendez, but lost to Kevin Coffman and the Atlanta Braves, 6-4, in San Francisco. The pinch hit homer record is 12.
The Cincinnati Reds beat the Astros, 12-7, in Houston, Tracy Jones driving in five runs.