Benito Santiago seemed to be at the end of his string when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning against Cincinnati last Thursday night in San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. With a 32-game hitting streak on the line, San Diego's rookie catcher had fouled out in the first, lined out in the third and bounced back to the mound in the fifth. But Padres manager Larry Bowa had noticed the Reds' Dave Concepcion playing deep at third.
"Look at all that room," said Bowa. "Why not bunt?"
"Nobody's expecting it," piped in Santiago's teammate Carmelo Martinez. "Just go up and bunt."
"O.K., pero one question," said Santiago, a Puerto Rican who speaks a Spanish-spangled dialect of English. "Define bunt."
By any definition the move was downright brilliant. Reds pitcher Frank Williams was so surprised that he fell off the mound. Santiago beat Concepcion's throw by a yard. Very few people expect a guy to bunt in his last chance to keep a five-week hitting streak alive, and a catcher at that. It was, in fact, Santiago's first bunt hit in the majors.
On Friday the Padres' 22-year-old shoo-in for Rookie of the Year doubled in the first inning against Fernando Valenzuela. When the streak finally ended on Saturday at 34, it was the 15th-longest in major league history and the longest ever for a Padre, a Latin, a rookie or a catcher.
During Santiago's spree, from Aug. 25 through Oct. 2, he batted .346 with five homers and 18 RBIs. For the year his figures were .300, 18 and 79. He even stole 21 bases. He caught 146 games, too. Unfortunately, he did all this for the worst team in the league.
Unlike Milwaukee's Paul Molitor, the designated hitter whose 39-game streak recently captivated the baseball world, Santiago had to play every game at the toughest position on the field. "Every player but the catcher gets to rest and contemplate his next at bat," says Padres rightfielder Tony Gwynn, whose .370 average led the majors. "Benny constantly had to squat, block foul tips and cushion the impact of oncoming base runners," says Bowa. "It's not for nothing a catcher's equipment is called the tools of ignorance."
Santiago has long stringy arms, small hips and legs that look too fragile for a catcher but are really full of knotty muscle. "The reason he doesn't get hurt," says Bowa, "is that he's so skinny, foul balls don't hit him square."
Santiago's strong arm was his ticket to the major leagues. This season he threw out master base stealer Vince Coleman three times, second only to San Francisco's Bob Brenly. He once nabbed Tim Raines after backhanding a breaking ball in the dirt. "The best throw I've ever seen," says Gwynn. And Santiago is adept at the pickoff; he nailed both Andre Dawson and Mike Schmidt at second without even rising from his crouch.