At 38, Santana enjoys second act as reliever

May 12th, 2021

Royals fans likely remember as a durable and reliable starter in 2013, when he posted a 3.24 ERA across 32 starts and 211 innings for a team hoping to be one step closer to contending.

Eight years later, he has the same characteristics -- durability and reliability -- but in a different role.

After rejoining the Royals on a Minor League deal this offseason, the 38-year-old is now a long-inning reliever. He’s the one Kansas City turns to for multiple innings when the starters don’t go deep, and usually when the club is losing by more than a few runs. But what he’s been able to do shouldn’t be overlooked.

Santana put together another vintage performance in Tuesday's 8-7 loss to the Tigers, throwing three scoreless innings when the Royals were down seven runs. That allowed the offense to come back and tie the game in the ninth inning, and despite the loss, Santana saved the bullpen for Wednesday, and perhaps the rest of the week with a doubleheader coming up on Friday.

“What he did was save about four guys from throwing an inning that could have ended up costing us in the next several days,” manager Mike Matheny said. “It’s huge. We just save so many different guys. And not just eating innings up, but pitching good innings.”

Santana has a 2.51 ERA in 14 1/3 innings over six games (one doubleheader start). The transition to the bullpen may have looked smooth, but Santana is a veteran starter. He wanted to start for the Royals this year, but he didn’t break camp on the Opening Day roster. Yet he’s embraced this relief role because, despite pitching for 16 years and making All-Star teams and even throwing a no-hitter once, Santana still has one goal on his mind.

“The goal everybody has in mind -- to win the World Series,” Santana said. “That’s my goal. I want to win a World Series. If I have the opportunity with the Royals, why not?”

Santana has said he’s leaned on Wade Davis and Greg Holland to help take on a reliever mindset. It requires more of an attack-mode mentality, even though Santana knows he’s typically going to be on the mound for multiple innings. He also has adjusted to not knowing when he’s going to pitch next, throwing bullpens after some games if he didn’t pitch that day.

Santana’s arm, even at 38, feels “fresh,” he said, and the Royals were pleased to see how quickly he could rebound after some outings.

“You just don’t know, when a guy’s been in a certain role for so long, to give him a unique challenge, but this guy is a pleasure to have,” Matheny said. “He’s a pro’s pro. I just enjoy watching him do his thing. And then how he’s investing in the other players. We make a big deal about that. We believe that that’s a multiplier -- a guy that’s making other people better.

“And also, by the way, doing a great job with his own job.”

Santana hasn’t had a consistent season since 2017 with the Twins, hindered by injuries and rough outings in ’18 and ’19. In 2020, he didn’t pitch at all until winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he posted a 2.61 ERA in 20 2/3 innings and caught the Royals’ attention.

Now, he’s turning back the clock.

“Doesn’t matter how old you are,” Santana said. “If you think you still have it, you can keep working and show it when you get an opportunity to play. And that’s what I’ve been doing once I got my chance to play.”

Mondesi, Hahn, Zimmer begin rehab assignments

Three Royals players will take the next steps toward returning with rehab assignments starting Wednesday and Thursday night.

Shortstop (right oblique strain) will join Double-A Northwest Arkansas on Thursday, while reliever (right shoulder impingement) will start his rehab assignment with Triple-A Omaha. Hahn will join right-hander (left trapezius strain), who began his assignment with Omaha on Wednesday.

Mondesi hasn’t played a regular-season game yet, while Hahn has been out since mid-April and Zimmer since the beginning of May. Getting all three back will be an enormous boost to the Royals’ lineup and bullpen, the latter of which has had to piece together high-leverage innings without Hahn and Zimmer in the back end of the ‘pen.