Cleveland Indians

Santana’s winter work paying off in autumn for Indians

15 October 2016: Cleveland Indians Designated hitter Carlos Santana (41) celebrates after hitting a home run during the second inning of the American League Championship Series Game 2 between the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. Cleveland defeated Toronto 2-1. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

CLEVELAND — Carlos Santana didn’t have an awful season in 2015, but it also wasn’t up to his standards.

The Cleveland Indians’ designated hitter batted .231 with 19 home runs and a .752 OPS in 154 games. When Santana went home to the Dominican Republic, he started training harder and earlier than past offseasons.

“I knew I need to play better this year and I needed to get better prepared in the winter,” Santana said.

The results showed during the regular season as his 34 home runs were a career-high for the seven-year veteran, tying first baseman Mike Napoli for the team lead. The 30-year-old Santana also had a .259 batting average and an .864 OPS in 158 games.

Santana had one of his biggest moments of the season Saturday in the Indians’ 2-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Progressive Field.

His solo home run off 20-game winner J.A. Happ in the second inning opened the scoring and helped Cleveland take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

“He’s great,” Santana said of Happ. “It was important to try to score a run off him early.”

With a 4:09 p.m. start time, the sun was shining right in the hitters’ eyes in the early innings. Yet that didn’t bother Santana.

“This is my house,” Santana said. “So I understand. So it’s tough to see. I see Napoli and he’s taking sunglasses out and I’m saying ‘oh my gosh, he’s a star and he can’t see.’ But for me, I don’t try to do much. I just tried to hit the ball.”

The Blue Jays tied the game in the top of third on Josh Donaldson’s RBI double before the legs of 35-year-old Rajai Davis helped the Indians score what turned out to be the game’s final run in the bottom of the inning.

Davis reached on a fielder’s choice, stole second base, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on Francisco Lindor’s single.

Santana is in the final guaranteed season of a five-year, $21 million contract that contains a $12 million club option for 2017 with a $1.2 million buyout. At the start of the season, it was questionable whether the option would be exercised, but it now seems certain that Santana will be back with the Indians in 2017.

The signing of Napoli pushed Santana off first base and into the DH role. Francona has also often utilized Santana as the leadoff hitter with the thinking being that his .365 career on-base percentage offsets just 35 stolen bases.

Yet Santana has rolled with the changes and played a big part in helping get the Indians within two wins of their first World Series appearance since 1997. They haven’t won it all since 1948.

“It’s been kind of a unique thing this year with Carlos,” Francona said. “Not a lot of times you see a veteran player make some of the changes that he’s made. He’s always been a really good kid but this year he’s been a much more open, much better teammate. You see him laughing more. He’s much more open to things. He’ll come to me and say ‘whatever you need,’ and that’s actually what it’s been.’”

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