Everything anyone needs to know about Tony Santillan’s demeanor was shown in the bottom of the third inning Thursday.
Santillan whacked a double into left field for his first Major League hit. It’s a big moment in any career, even for pitchers who may not have an opportunity to hit after this season. Teammates will ask for the ball to be returned to the dugout, so they can cherish it forever.
When fellow rookie pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez recorded his first big-league hit earlier this month on an infield single, he busted out laughing when he heard his teammates shouting from the dugout. There was no hiding how he felt about it with a wide smile as he stood on first base.
Then there is Santillan, who acted like it was no hit out of the ordinary. No big smile. Laz Diaz, the crew chief umpire, asked Santillan if it was his first hit. Santillan nodded and perhaps broke into the slightest of grins.
“It’s just who I am,” Santillan said. “I’m not a very emotional guy on the field. When I’m across those lines, I’m just about my business, very serious. Just very aggressive, go after them. It’s very rare for me to show some emotion. I know (pitching coach Derek Johnson) was giving me a hard time because I don’t smile enough. It is what it is. Just being myself.”
Santillan put the baseball from his first hit in his locker, which sits next to the balls from his first Major League pitch and first Major League strikeout. He’ll figure out what to do with them later. For now, he said, they’re just sitting in his locker.
That demeanor, that businesslike approach, is something that teammates appreciate about Santillan. It was just his third Major League start Thursday, but nobody would ever know it.
Santillan was dominant against the Atlanta Braves in a 5-3 win. He allowed one run across six innings, permitting three hits and three walks. He struck out eight with a dominant slider that generated 13 swings and misses from opposing batters.
It was the first winning decision of Santillan’s career and the first time he’s pitched more than 4 2/3 innings.
“A huge step in the right direction,” said reliever Brad Brach, who earned the save Thursday. “A lot of rookies, they go out there, they have their first little bump in the road, and they could go backward. But he stepped up to the challenge against a really good team.”
The Reds have a 13-8 record in June and they’re relying on two rookie starting pitchers. Gutierrez has a 3-1 record and a 3.86 ERA through five career starts. Santillan is 1-1 with a 3.29 ERA in three starts.
“Credit to both of them, they’re not scared when they’re out there,” Nick Castellanos said. “They’re pounding the zone when they fall behind. They’re throwing their off-speed pitches for strikes. They throw their fastball for strikes. They get hit sometimes but they come and get back at you. Those are all the intangibles from young starting pitchers that you can look for. Regardless if your stuff is there or not, that doesn’t go away.”
“They're pitching like they have experience, but they don't,” David Bell said. “That just means they're going to keep getting better.”
Sitting in the bullpen near center field, Brach noticed that Santillan uses a complex set of signs with catcher Tucker Barnhart when a runner is on second base. It prevents the runner at second from stealing a sign and possibly signaling to the hitter what pitch is coming.
It’s a little thing, but it’s uncommon to see that from a guy who is adjusting to the speed of the Major League level.
Then again, nothing seems to speed up on Santillan. He stranded runners on the corners in the fourth inning Thursday with back-to-back strikeouts on sliders. Two more runners reached base with two outs in the sixth inning, and he pitched out of the jam with a groundout.
“When I’m on that mound, I’m just doing my thing, trusting myself that I’m getting out of this,” Santillan said. “That’s how I am. No one on, cruising seven no-hit (innings) or a struggling day, struggling outing, I have the same mindset regardless. It’s always I’m the better guy up there and that’s how I go about my business whenever the ball is in my hand. For me, that’s the way it has to be.”
With Santillan, the Reds know they’ll always be able to count on his focus and his demeanor. Santillan has self-awareness about it, saying, “oh, you’re going to love me for this one,” when he was asked about a standing ovation from some fans at the end of the sixth inning Thursday.
“To be honest, nothing was going through my mind. Nothing. Just get in the dugout, sit down, have me a water and I’ll be good,” said Santillan, laughing. “Nothing crazy, you know. I was just very empty. Happy I got the job done, got that last guy out.”