It seemed only fitting that Carlos Santana spent the final day of September in hot pursuit of a cycle as the Cleveland Indians defeated the Kansas City Royals by a 7-2 final on Friday night.
After all, the Indians designated hitter and first baseman had spent the entire month hitting the cover off of the ball. With three hard hits, two for extra bases, he pushed his September batting average to a healthy .327, the second-best mark on the club among regulars in the lineup.
While Santana was putting together some of his best numbers of the season, the Indians were working to fend off the second place Detroit Tigers, something that they finally succeeded at doing on Monday in the AL Central clinching victory at Comerica Park, bringing a division crown back to Cleveland for the first time since 2007. It was made all the more possible because Santana picked up the team and carried it on his back while other players struggled as a grueling season entered its final moments.
The Indians had a good September, but not necessarily a great September. It took a five-run win on Friday night to push the club back into the positive side of the ledger in the run differential department as they outscored their opposition 122-119 and finished the month with a 16-11 record. Over the course of the last two months, their runs scored and runs allowed marks are even at 263-263 after being outscored by three runs (144-141) during their 16-14 month of August. Factor in a 12-12 July with a 124-121 tally in the runs scored/runs allowed statistics, the team is putting up runs at just a slightly higher margin than its opposition.
While that dramatic change in run differential from the earlier portion of the season is noticeable, a far more important overall factor remains – the Indians keep on winning. Rotation injuries have undoubtedly played a role in increased runs from other teams, but an improved bullpen and steady play from the offense has helped the Indians put up a 27-21 record in one-run games and a 34-20 mark in blowout games (five or more runs of difference in the final score).
Santana has been a key component of that consistent play from the offense.
In 27 games in September, the Indians hit .249 with a .339 on-base percentage and a .391 slugging percentage, good for a .729 OPS. The latter two were the single worst monthly performances by the club this season. Their batting average slotted in as the seventh-best in the American League, but was only minutely better than the .248 that they hit in the first month of the season. These numbers helped to explain the club putting up 4.52 runs per game and 8.19 hits per game, their second lowest outputs this season (4.33 runs per game and 8.48 hits per game in April).
The Indians made up for the 16-point decrease in batting average by using their eyes and exhibiting good patience at the plate. The team drew a season-high 113 walks in the month, good for 4.19 per game (nearly a walk and a half more per contest than August and more than a walk higher than their season average of 3.09 at the start of the month). Their .339 OBP for the month was a season’s best and certainly aided by Santana’s 32 hits and 22 free passes.
Many of the Indians’ biggest contributors throughout the season were silenced as the club inched closer and closer to the finish line of the regular season.
Jason Kipnis was second on the club with 113 plate appearances, trailing Santana’s 121. Kipnis had his worst month of the season, hitting .221 with a .336 OBP and .389 slugging percentage. He was second on the club with ten doubles and 14 runs scored, but he was also second in strikeouts with 26.
Francisco Lindor stepped to the plate 107 times in 25 games. Like Kipnis, he put up his worst month of the season, slashing .238/.368/.333 while his swing at times appeared to get a little long. He was fourth on the team with 20 hits (including 14 singles) and was tied with 14 runs scored. He did make up some for his struggles at the plate with a season-high 17 walks, but was marred in an 0-for-27 slump that ended on Friday night with a two-hit game, one that included a joyous celebration after an early double that may have led to him taking a pitch on the rear end from the Royals’ frequently unstable starter Yordano Ventura. Lindor later got the last laugh with a homer off of the left field foul pole off of the KC ‘pen.
Mike Napoli, not exactly a source of a high average at the plate this season, was limited to a .153 mark with a .305 OBP and .353 slugging in September. He had 13 hits (two doubles, five homers), drove in 13, and scored eleven while striking out a team-leading 28 times. Veteran Rajai Davis was little better and hit .190 with a .217 average in 21 games, tending not to get on the bases enough to be available to drive home.
Santana, however, was one of just three players on the club to hit over .300 for the month. In 27 games, he was second on the team with 32 hits (trailing Jose Ramirez’s 34). He led the team in homers (six), runs scored (19), and RBI (21) and was third with eight doubles.
He was even more impressive with his eye at the plate. He led the club with 22 walks while striking out just 13 times. His free passes were actually tied for the third-most in all of baseball for the month and helped turned a very nice .327 average at the plate into a .446 on-base percentage. In fact, only six players to step to the box at least 50 times in the month got on base at a better pace than Santana.
Santana did it all for the Tribe in September. He displayed a good eye, hit for average, hit for power, drove in runs, and got on base frequently enough to be knocked in by others.
For those who have watched Santana over the course of his ten-year Major League career, they might remember that he has tended to perform well in the second half. Septembers have been no exception – he has more runs scored, homers, RBI, and walks and a better on-base percentage in the month than any other full month of the schedule.
Many of his teammates started to cool off as summer faded into autumn, but Santana kept the heat on. While the collective offensive slump may have been ill-timed, it is better to get that out of the system now, before the postseason starts. Despite the struggles at the plate, the Indians survived and put together another positive winning month, clinched the division, and continued to overcome every obstacle thrown at them because of guys like Santana. Regardless of whether the offense was ranked at the top of the league or in the middle of the pack, the Indians have kept on winning by taking a complete team approach day in and day out.
When others have faltered or have succumbed to injury, another has stepped up to carry the load. Santana did just that in September and looks primed and poised for a big push in the postseason.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images