Santana on Fire, Lifting Indians at Important Time

Cleveland Indians first baseman/designated hitter Carlos Santana could not have picked a better time for his bat to start heating up. Both from a team standpoint and individual standpoint, Santana’s recent hitting outburst has been much-needed.

The Tribe lost both second baseman Jason Kipnis and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall to injuries just before the All-Star break. Between those two, that accounts for a good chunk of offense. Around that time, Santana started hitting like it was 2016 all over again. After a cool first half to the season, his bat has really started to heat up of late.

Santana, who has been with the Tribe since 2010, has never been the model of consistency. He’s never strung together consecutive truly powerful seasons. He has topped the 25 home run mark three times, but never in back-to-back seasons. However, a lot was expected of the veteran coming into the 2017 campaign.

Last year, at the age of 30, Santana blasted a career-best 34 home runs. He tied for the team lead with Mike Napoli. He also had a career-high 87 RBI and hit .259, which was his second-best output in a full season of Major League Baseball. Combine his 2016 breakout with the fact that he was coming into a contract year this season and many people thought he would have another big year en route to landing a rich free agent contract this winter.

Perhaps he was pressing early in the season as a free-agent-to-be. Maybe he felt the pressure to be a big-time power source when newcomer Edwin Encarnacion struggled for more than a month to find his power that made him so popular for half a decade in Toronto.

Either way, Santana was in funk for the season’s first three months.

Traditionally a better second-half hitter, this year’s first half just seemed like more of a grind for Santana. As June came to a close, Santana was hitting just .225, well below his modest career average of .247. He’d only hit nine homers. The good news was he was at least driving in runs with 41 RBI. However, even that number was a steady decline from 16 in April, to 14 in May, to 11 in June. He hit just .219 in the third month of the season and was really languishing. He had yet to have any sort of hot streak that he has shown in past years to be capable of.

In other seasons that he struggled, there were always reasons. Early on, it was the brutality of playing behind the plate as the team’s catcher. Then it was trying to learn new positions as he unsuccessfully transferred to third base and then successfully learned how to play first base.

For much of his career, Santana has often been the lone player on the Indians with 25-or-more home run ability. That changed last year with Napoli coming to town and this year with the Napoli upgrade in Encarnacion.

The outburst for Santana in 2016 was credited in part because he had finally found a home in the field playing first base and part-time DH. He was not struggling to learn a position. He did not have to try and be the main source of power any longer for the Tribe and could be more comfortable at the plate. The pieces were all in place for him this year to maintain the success he had a season ago.

Yet despite that, Santana struggled out of the gate and into the halfway point of the campaign. Then July hit. It was almost like a switch was flipped once June ended. In his first five contests of the month, Santana had four games in which he collect two hits. After the July 4 game, he left the team for a few games to go on paternity leave. Who knows how personal life can affect a professional athlete. However, it’s as if his wife giving birth helped ease his mind. He had three of his two-hit games right before his brief hiatus and then returned on July 8 with another two-hit affair.

Santana has continued his hot-hitting ways throughout the month, especially in the last week. Heading into Saturday night’s game, Santana was hitting .333 in July. He had raised his batting average to .246 from the .225 it was at as June was wrapping up. His June swoon has turned into a July blast.

From July 19 through Friday night, a nine-game span, Santana had four two-hit games and a three-hit night. He was 13-of-38 (.342 average) with four home runs and seven RBI. He has raised his totals for the season to 14 bombs and 55 RBI. That hot stretch helped power the Tribe to an eight-game winning streak through Friday night.

With two important pieces to the batting order out in Kipnis and Chisenhall, the Indians have really gotten a boost from Santana. Chisenhall was the team’s RBI leader when he got hurt. Santana has taken up that mantle of timely hitting.

It has always been said that when Santana gets into one of his truly hot stretches, he can truly carry a team. In this case, he has not had to carry the team. His hot streak coincides with Francisco Lindor getting hot, Jose Ramirez continuing to put up All-Star numbers, and Encarnacion remaining on a pace to hit more than 30 taters in his first season with the Tribe.

Last year, Santana was one of the centerpieces of an offense that finished second in the American League in runs scored en route to winning a division title and earning a trip to the World Series. The offense had many players who contributed, but Santana stood out with his 34 jacks.

This year, it seems that Santana may not stand out, despite still being surrounded by other good hitters and being in a contract year in which a possible long-term deal could be at stake. The first-baseman/DH has turned the 2017 narrative around as he is getting his numbers closer to those 25-homer, 85-RBI totals that are typical of his best campaigns.

It means Santana may not be cheap this winter. A 31-year-old with 30-home-run potential could command three or four years and a hefty amount of money. It is possible he could be having his hot and cold streaks in another uniform next year after playing his whole MLB career in Cleveland to this point. That, however, is not a worry for now.

For now, the Indians are worried about trying to repeat as division champs and get back to the Fall Classic, with a goal of winning it this time around. It is not going to be easy. The Kansas City Royals entered Saturday on an even hotter streak than the Indians, having won nine games in a row. They are putting pressure on the Tribe for the division crown. Teams like the Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox are real threats to the Indians getting back to the World Series. The Dodgers, Nationals, and resurgent Cubs are looming large and could stand in the way of the Indians winning the Series this October.

Getting Chisenhall and Kipnis back soon will be big keys toward the Indians being able to overcome the obstacles that stand between them and their first World Championship since 1948. A prolonged hot streak at the plate from Santana could be one of the bigger difference makers. It was last year, when that same blueprint of two guys in the lineup rocketing the ball a long way at a steady pace helped to drive the offense. It could help Cleveland go a long way again this year.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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