SAN DIEGO — He has kept it going with bleeders, choppers, bouncers, bloopers, liners and luck.
It being the only legal method remaining, Tuesday Benito Santiago extended his hitting streak with dramatics.
In the eighth inning, in his final at-bat in a 5-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants, with 11,411 fans standing and cheering, with the strains of his trademark song "Benny and the Jets" still echoing around San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, Santiago stretched his hitting streak to 31 games with a ball that he'll be seeing all winter.
A two-run homer. On the first pitch from Scott Garrelts. Left-fielder Jeffrey Leonard froze. The ball hit the first row of left-field seats. Santiago fairly jumped, and then thrust his right, orange-wristbanded fist into the air. He rounded the bases and the fans wouldn't sit down. He went into the dugout and they still wouldn't sit.
He came out and waved his helmet for one of the first curtain calls this season. A curtain call when most everyone in the park, including Santiago, thought his streak was curtains.
"After my third at-bat, I thought the streak would be over with," said Santiago, who before the game was moved into the unfamiliar second spot in the batting order by Manager Larry Bowa, thinking it might give him an extra at-bat.
Turns out he would have had four at-bats anyway, but for only the fourth time during the streak, he needed all four. For only the third time, it came in the eighth inning or later.
"I was glad to get that last chance," the rookie said. "I went up there looking for a fastball, he gave me one, and I jumped on it. I never go up trying to hit the ball so far. It just happened."
Give some credit to Garrelts, the three-year veteran, for giving Santiago a chance.
"I could have stopped him very easily by throwing nothing he could hit," Garrelts said. "But I wanted to make him earn it."
If nothing else, the first-pitch hit rewarded the impatience that cost Santiago in his earlier three at-bats.
In the first inning, he grounded out to shortstop Matt Williams on the first pitch.
In the fourth, same grounder, same shortstop, same pitch.
In the fifth, he fell behind starter Kelly Downs, 0 and 2, then fouled off three pitches before flying out to center fielder Randy Kutcher.
If anything will stop Santiago's streak, it is not the much-publicized weariness of catching 141 of 157 games thus far. It is this increasing inability to stay off the trigger.
"In my first three at-bats, I really felt the pressure on me," he said. "I was really trying to pull the ball. I finally relaxed."
His teammates noticed.
"That's what has really impressed me about him during all this," shortstop Garry Templeton said. "He can become so calm out there."
Santiago's streak has already set the major league record for catchers and rookies. Tuesday was noteworthy because he passed Kansas City's George Brett to move into third place among streaks in the 1980s.
Now, he would just like to finish the year with say, oh, a hit in each of the final five games, giving him 36 straight. That way, he could come out next season and hit in about the first 20 games and really foul up the record keepers at Elias Sports Bureau, who have vowed that any streak covering two seasons cannot be considered in the same class as Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game mark. Fittingly, after breaking so many records this season, next he could create one of his own.
"Shoot, there's only five or six games left," said Santiago. "I figure, I hit in 31, I can hit in five or six more."
Excuse Bowa if he wasn't doing cartwheels Tuesday night. For the first time this season, he closed his office door for five minutes after the game to allow his anger to cool. The Padres have lost six straight. Tuesday, the Giants, adhering to the usual procedure one day after clinching a pennant, started four rookies, including three recent minor league recalls who didn't have a hit this season. The Padres were outhit, 7-6, and committed two errors and other mental blunders.
"Benny is something, but so is this team," said a disgusted Bowa. "Excuse me, but his streak is not the most important thing on my mind right now. Right now, for most of them, baseball is the farthest from their mind, which is sad.
"My job is to win, not applaud streaks and forget losses. I hope Benny hits in 100 games in a row. But my job is winning, and we're not doing it."
The Padres only took 2 hours 11 minutes to lose Tuesday, helped by an awful outing by Jimmy Jones (three innings, four hits, two earned runs) and two Randy Ready errors at third base that each led to runs.
Deacon Jones, one of two remaining Padre coaches who have been with the club since the 1984 league championship season, is leaving the team at the end of the season. Jones, who has been the Padres' hitting coach for the past four seasons, informed General Manager Jack McKeon Monday afternoon that he is resigning effective Oct. 4.
PADRES AT A GLANCE