SAN DIEGO — As a mere rookie, Benito Santiago has accomplished something that no other catcher has done in major league baseball history.
When Santiago beat out an infield single in the second inning Monday night at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, he became the first catcher to hit safely in 30 consecutive games. He also became the 29th player to reach that milestone.
The Padres' 22-year-old sensation had to share the attention of the crowd of 29,844 with the San Francisco Giants, who clinched the National League West title with a 5-4 win. Before the game, he was almost ignored as the horde of Bay Area reporters concentrated on the budding champions.
Still, the fans made it clear as soon as Santiago left the dugout for his first time at bat that his remarkable feat hasn't gone unrecognized. They greeted him with a standing ovation that lasted close to a minute.
After that, Santiago wasted no time keeping his string alive. He took two balls from Giant starter Dave Dravecky, a former batterymate, then drilled a shot down the third-base line. Kevin Mitchell, another ex-teammate, made a nice diving stop going to his right, but his throw to first baseman Will Clark was wide and late.
There was little doubt that the play would be scored a hit, but the fans didn't wait for the decision. As soon as Santiago was ruled safe by umpire Frank Pulli, they gave him another standing ovation.
Afterward, Santiago was obviously drained both emotionally and physically, and he declined to answer questions of reporters.
"I'll talk later," he said. "Give me a break. I'm tired."
Santiago's lockermate, first baseman Carmelo Martinez, could understand how he felt.
"He's worn out," Martinez said. "This thing has really gotten to him. He's a great player, and he loves to swing the bat. When he learns to take pitches and get some walks, he'll be even better."
Manager Larry Bowa, for whom Santiago played at Triple-A Las Vegas last season, said, "I'm not surprised that Benny has turned out to be this good.
"Of course, I didn't anticipate anything like this. And the fact that he's a catcher makes it more meaningful that a lot of those players ahead of him. That's really an amazing achievement."
Santiago's streak is the longest in Santiago's streak is the longest in the National League this season and the second longest in the majors. Paul Molitor of the Milwaukee Brewers hit safely in 39 straight games, the seventh-longest streak ever.
Santiago is in a seven-way tie for 23rd place on the all-time streak list. Three of the six others--Tris Speaker, Goose Goslin and Stan Musial--are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and a fourth, George Brett, is a probable Hall of Famer. The others tied at 30 are Ron LeFlore and Elmer Smith.
If Santiago can run his string to 31 against the Giants tonight, he will move into a six-way tie for 18th place. Tied at 31 are Ed Delahanty and Sam Rice, two more Hall of Famers, ex-Dodger Willie Davis, Rico Carty and Ken Landreaux.
Unfortunately, Santiago has no chance to go for a record, since only five games remain on the Padres' schedule and such streaks are not carried over from one season to the next. Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees set the major league record of 56 games in 1941. Willie Keeler of the old Baltimore Orioles set the National League record of 44 games in 1897 and Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds also hit in 44 straight games in 1978.
Santiago didn't stop with his streak-extending single, which was wasted when he was left on third base. After flying out and grounding into a double play, he pulled the Padres into a 4-4 tie in the seventh inning with a bloop triple that scored pinch-runner Stan Jefferson.
Santiago is batting .347 during his streak, which began Aug. 25. He has 43 hits in 124 at-bats.