ST. PETERSBURG -- While the Indians are eager to flip the calendar and embark on their crucial September push, don’t blame Carlos Santana for casting a few glances over his shoulder as the season moves on.
August, after all, was very, very good to Cleveland’s first baseman.
Santana closed out the month on Saturday in much the same vein as he had plowed through it, by spraying balls around the field. He homered and doubled in the Tribe’s 9-6 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field to boost his August average to .350 (35-for-100) over 29 games.
He wrapped up the month with eight home runs, six doubles, 22 RBIs, 24 walks and 26 runs scored, leaving August behind with very little left undone.
“If he hit four home runs tomorrow, I guess I’d be a little surprised, but it wouldn’t bother me,” manager Terry Francona deadpanned when asked if there was anything else Santana could do. “He’s had a heck of a year, and I don’t see why it won’t continue.”
What Santana hit on Saturday, he hit hard. His double off the left-center-field wall in the third inning clocked in with a Statcast-estimated 108.1 mph exit velocity, and his first-inning big fly left the field at 107.8 mph. Those swats made Santana responsible for two of the hardest-hit balls of the game.
The home run came on a payoff pitch, marking the big switch-hitter’s 31st of the season, and it traveled a projected 409 feet. It also gave the Tribe a 2-0 edge in the first inning and allowed starting pitcher Zach Plesac to pitch with a cushion from the beginning. Plesac was hurt by a pair of early homers but never let the game get out of control, limiting the damage to the two round-trippers to give his teammates a chance to hop back in.
“I felt good,” Plesac said. “I threw 84 pitches, and two swings, two pitches really did the damage, so for next time, just make better pitches when I need to.”
For the second consecutive night, though, the runs didn’t come when they were needed. While Santana’s big bat was enough to get the dugout hopping, the good vibes didn’t transfer into the batter’s box. His first-inning homer accounted for the Indians’ lone runs until Francisco Lindor slugged a two-run home run in the eighth inning.
Greg Allen added a two-run double in the ninth for the final margin**.**
“Whether we played like it the last two nights or not, we’re a good ballclub,” second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “We should be a tough team to beat; we’ve been that way for most of the year, and it’s not surprising for them to put up a fight there at the end of the game.”
The Indians remained 4 1/2 games behind the division-leading Twins in the American League Central after Minnesota lost to the Tigers on Saturday night.
Cleveland has hit an offensive lull in Florida, scoring just six times in the two games after plating 16 over the previous three in Detroit. The Indians are scoreless in 15 of their past 18 innings.
Plesac was charged with an additional run in the sixth when he walked the leadoff batter, and his replacement, Tyler Clippard, yielded a two-run homer to Avisail Garcia to push the game further out of reach for Cleveland.
“I thought we actually had a pretty good approach,” Francona said. “We hit the ball the other way, pretty hard. … We didn’t have a lot to show for it, but I did think we had the right approach.”
For the way they limped out of August after a 9-3 start, the Indians are left hoping September will be more their month.
Santana may be the one to lead them forward, for though a lot of attention has been paid to his past 31 days, he has actually been just as hot throughout the season. Santana ranks at the top of league lists in several categories, and he has a .294/.414/.549 slash line and ranks third in the Majors in walks (98).
Santana is also tied for third in on-base percentage and is 13th in runs scored (96) and ninth in OPS (.963). He is ninth in the American League in home runs.
With a month left in the regular season, the 10-year veteran is also just three home runs shy of his career-high 34, set in 2016, and five shy of his career-best mark of 87 RBIs, set the same season.
Kipnis exits early
Kipnis was removed in the seventh inning with right wrist discomfort, the Indians announced. The second baseman was replaced by Mike Freeman in the field in the bottom of the seventh.
The issue has been a lingering one over the past few weeks for Kipnis, who was quick to point out that it wasn’t a hamate injury.
“It’s been there, and I don’t see it to be anything to keep me out,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll just find out how I feel [Sunday] morning. I think that last at-bat, the swings and misses, kind of when it overextends, it really gets you a little bit.
“You step out, and you mentally prepare for it to hurt again the next swing, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”