Don't look now, but after his effective appearance against the Cleveland Indians on Friday night, Hector Santiago has strung together seven scoreless innings.
Actually, now would be a good time to start looking. Unlike his previous five outings, Santiago looked like the guy he was supposed to be entering the season.
The last time Santiago allowed a run was on May 6, when he surrendered a key solo homer in a 3-1 loss to Detroit over two innings. Not by coincidence, that matched his home run rate for the season -- one gopher ball every two innings, for totals of five over 10 at that point. He couldn't fool many hitters with his off-speed stuff, perhaps because he slowed down his arm, too.
Santiago rebounded from that outing to restore his ERA, but he sacrificed his repertoire in doing so. He needed 92 pitches across those five outings, and he threw fastballs for 80 of them, taking the occasional break for seven sliders, two changeups, and, most notably, three screwballs. Prior to the season, he figured he would have to restrict himself to throwing it 15 to 20 percent of the time. Two months into the season, he couldn't figure out how to even reach 4 percent.
Instead of throwing a devastating trick pitch, Santiago had been reduced to a one-trick pony. So that's why it was great to see him mix it up again on Friday night.
Here's how he carved up his 26 pitches:
- Fastball: 16
- Screwball: 4
- Changeup: 4
- Slider: 2
Finally, his screwball usage creeped over that 15 percent mark. More significantly, his pitch sequencing looked like that of a versatile pitcher.
He did throw 11 straight fastballs to start the eighth, but the tunnelvision could be defended. He began with four fastballs to Jason Kipnis, which wouldn't be advised in anything resembling a close game. But with nobody on base and a seven-run lead, I can see Santiago and A.J. Pierzynski keeping it simple.
Same can be said for the second batter, Juan Diaz. It was Diaz's first MLB plate appearance -- he was hitting .232 at Double-A Akron prior to his promotion. Santiago had no reason to dick around, and sure enough, he blew a 95-mph fastball by Diaz for the strikeout.
When Santiago faced tougher situations and/or hitters, he wised up with his pitch selection. He ended the seventh with back-to-back sliders to freeze Shin-Soo Choo for the strikeout. With a runner in scoring position and one out in the eighth, Santiago used his screwball to keep Carlos Santana in check.
He actually started Santana with a low changeup, but came back with an inside-corner fastball to even the count. Then Santiago came with a screwball, and Santana was ready for something faster. He couldn't pull the trigger, and it drifted back over the outside corner to put the count in Santiago's favor. Santiago then doubled up, and Santana didn't fare much better. He was out in front, and he could only manage to reach out and tap a nubber down the first base line. It rolled foul and extended the at-bat.
Santiago threw one more fastball, and Santana couldn't quite get around on it. He rolled out harmlessly to short for the second out. That left the Indians rally up to Jose Lopez, and Santiago never threw him a fastball. Instead, he threw two changeups and a screwball. That resulted in another routine grounder to the left side, and Orlando Hudson threw across the diamond to end the inning.
I'm not saying Santiago is healed, but it's a return toward the version of Santiago whose screwball dazzled the Cactus League. That Santiago is a major-league, one-inning reliever. The one Santiago had been playing for the previous five outings was a poor man's Matt Thornton -- almost all heat, but not as much velocity, not as much command.
When he came into the game, Steve Stone said that Santiago and Don Cooper had been working on pitch selection. It's too soon to say he has formed new habits, but the awkward strides and lack of square contact suggests that he might have figured out how to throw more than one pitch with conviction.