Former Friar’s backstop Benito Santiago. Mandatory Credit: UT-San Diego.com
Heard the name DiMaggio on your local sports broadcast in the last few days? Every time a hitter gets a hitting streak up into the 25-30 game range, Joltin’ Joe’s name starts getting tossed around. The Rockies’ young third baseman, Nolan Arenado, is the latest streaker, with hits in his last 28 games. He’s halfway to the Yankee Clipper’s mark of 56, which has stood since 1941.
So who holds the record for the Padres longest hitting streak? If you don’t already know the answer, I’ll give you two guesses, since you’re likely to spend the first guess on Tony Gwynn. Nope, Gwynn’s longest streak was stopped after 25 games. Hitting streaks are hard. And kind of fluky. Just being a great hitter doesn’t mean you’ll get a knock every day for a month, or in Joe D’s case, two months. In addition to being good, you also have to be lucky.
The Padre who managed the longest streak of good and lucky takes us back 27 years to 1987, when catcher Benito Santiago hit in 34 straight games in his rookie year. That mark continues to be the record for both rookie hitting streaks and streaks by a catcher. It’s tied for the 15th longest in major league history.
It was the dog days of August in a season which would see the Padres eventually lose 97 games. The rookie catcher was already having a good year, hitting .284 with 13 homers and showing surprising speed with 17 stolen bases. On August 25, Santiago added to his strong season with a 3-run homer off of Neal Heaton of the Expos. While the hit helped the Padres to a 5-1 victory that day, nobody in the park realized the significance of what they had seen.
For the next five weeks, Santiago managed to get at least one hit per game. He had 12 multiple-hit games during the streak, and raised his average from .284 to .299.
The streak nearly ended after 32 games. On September 30, Santiago came to bat in the bottom of the eighth after a hitless night. The Pads were playing the Reds at the Murph, and Dave Concepcion, Cincinnati’s third baseman, was playing deep when it was Benny’s turn to hit. The Padres’ crafty skipper Larry Bowa whispered in Santiago’s ear, and Santiago strolled to the plate. Reds pitcher Frank Williams fired away, and Santiago surprised nearly everyone in the stadium by dropping down the first bunt of his career, and busting his hump down the line to beat Concepcion’s throw by a yard. The streak was alive at 33 games.
After getting a double off Fernando Valenzuela to extend the streak to 34, the streak came to an end on the second-to-last game of the season. Orel Hershiser was pitching for the Dodgers, and was on top of his game. The Bulldog was nearly unhittable that day, allowing only three safeties, but one of those hits was a homer by Stan Jefferson. But Padres starter Jimmy Jones and reliever Lance McCullers were also putting up goose eggs that day. After 8 innings, Jefferson’s dinger was the only point on the board, and Santiago was scheduled to hit second in the ninth. I don’t think so many Padres fans ever wanted the Dodgers to score in the ninth inning as they did that day. McCullers gave up a lead-off double to Mike Scioscia, and a walk and a bunt later, the Dodgers had runners on second and third with one down. Chances looked good for Benny to hit again in the bottom of the frame. But it wasn’t to be. A strikeout of Steve Sax and a fly ball to left by Danny Heep retired the Dodgers, and with them, Santiago’s hitting streak.
Santiago went on to win the Rookie of the Year award, hitting .300 with 18 homers, 79 RBI, and 21 stolen bases. But as Padres fans, we mostly remember how he gave us something to cheer about every day in an otherwise forgettable year.