SAN DIEGO — On a recent Friday night at Citizens Bank Park, with the Phillies leading the Miami Marlins by four runs in the bottom of the ninth inning, rookie reliever Seranthony Dominguez gave up a two-out double that prompted a meeting on the mound.
Standing at first base, Carlos Santana couldn’t help joining in.
Old habits die hard, it seems. Santana was a touted catching prospect when he came to the big leagues in 2010 with the Cleveland Indians. He spent the first half of his nine-year major-league career behind the plate. He worked with longtime Indians catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., as good a mentor as there is for a young backstop. And he learned to see the game from a catcher’s perspective, focusing on every pitch and thinking along with the pitcher.
It was no surprise, then, that Santana not only joined the mound conference but also was among the most vocal parties, according to catcher Jorge Alfaro’s recollection. It’s a regular occurrence, too. On Monday night in Arizona, Santana gave Alfaro a brief talking to on the field after the rocket-armed catcher opted to get a force out at second base on a bunt in front of the mound rather than taking the easier play at first.
“When I was catching, I learned a lot,” Santana said this week. “My experience behind the plate, I try to talk to Alfaro. I want him to be one of the best catchers in the league.”
The Phillies signed Santana to a three-year, $60 million contract last December because they valued his on-base ability. In that area, the switch-hitting cleanup hitter hasn’t disappointed. Santana was batting only .219 with a .758 OPS and had only two homers in his last 81 plate appearances entering this weekend’s series in San Diego. But he had reached base at a .356 clip in large part because he drew 87 walks, second-most in the National League behind Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper (88).
But Phillies officials also recognized the impact Santana could have as a leader on the youngest team in baseball. And he has played that role perfectly, too, serving as a counselor and a guide for several of the Phillies’ still-impressionable players, most notably third baseman Maikel Franco and Alfaro.
According to third baseman Maikel Franco, a conversation with Santana back at the beginning of June was the catalyst for his recent turnaround.
Santana’s influence is seen everywhere, from the subtle conversations he has at his locker or in the batting cage to the blue “Slamtana” T-shirts that many players proudly wear around the clubhouse before batting practice.
“No question, he’s an amazing person,” Franco said. “He’s a good teammate. He’s been around the league for a long time, so you have to just try to just take an example of what he’s always doing. He’s always trying to help, and everything he does is just whatever he can to help us get better. Having him here has been a blessing.”
It wasn’t always that way. Indians manager Terry Francona said last winter that Santana could be “kind of surly at times and get a little consumed with how he’s doing” when he was a younger player. But over the last two seasons, Francona saw Santana develop into a leader, especially among young Indians stars Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.
“I like to play and I like to win,” Santana said. “They say I’ve become a leader. I’m a leader because I like to help the younger players. A leader is a guy who plays every day and plays hard every day, everything is positive.”
Franco credits a conversation with Santana for helping to turn around his season.
It was early June and manager Gabe Kapler had just informed Franco that he would be losing playing time at third base to J.P. Crawford. Santana urged the 25-year-old to keep working hard on perfecting his swing, which was being overhauled by hitting coaches John Mallee and Pedro Guerrero. But he also directed him to relax, have fun, and let his natural ability take over.
Franco got another chance June 19, when Crawford broke his left hand. Since then, Franco has been one of the most productive third basemen in baseball, batting .315 with eight doubles, nine homers, and a .914 OPS in 41 games from June 20 through the start of the series with the Padres.
Santana has been a similarly invaluable resource for the Phillies’ catchers. Wilson Ramos, acquired in a July 31 trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, will return from the disabled list within the next few weeks and bring experience to the catching position. But Alfaro and backup Andrew Knapp have held down the position all season, and although they receive daily instruction from catching coaches Dusty Wathan, Bob Stumpo and Craig Driver, Santana has been there to offer advice along the way, too.
“It’s hard being a young catcher in this game,” Santana said. “For me, I got lucky. I had Sandy Alomar, an ex-player for a long time behind the plate. When I have the opportunity, I can tell them some pointers. I think maybe I can help.”
In ways big and small, almost none of which show up in a boxscore, Santana has helped the Phillies to their unlikely position in the thick of the playoff race.
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