Wrote about Tennessee’s recent decision to hit Benito Santiago in the leadoff spot in today’s paper. This is an expanded version of that story.
After losses in the first two games of last week’s SEC series at Alabama, Tennessee coach Dave Serrano decided he’d had enough.
The Vols once-potent offense had been sidetracked since losing leadoff hitter and senior second baseman Jeff Moberg for the season to a torn ACL. After averaging 8.8 runs per game in the first 16 games of the season, the Vols were averaging 5.1 runs per game in six games without him and just four runs per game in their first five SEC contests.
“I said to the staff, ‘We need to shake things up a little bit,’ ” Serrano said Thursday. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over.”
So he and the UT coaching staff did something other coaches might consider insane on its face. They put a catcher in the leadoff spot.
And they haven’t lost since.
Benito Santiago batted first in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader against Alabama and won 6-3 to avoid a series sweep. They left him there and won two more games this week by a combined score of 20-2. Santiago is 5-for-11 with six runs scored in those three games.
The Vols (16-9, 2-4 SEC) head into a three-game home series against No. 24 Kentucky (18-7, 4-2) with a .339 batting average in the last three games.
The series begins at 6 p.m. Friday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium and continues at 4 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Since the injury to Moberg, the Vols had simply moved everyone else up one spot in the lineup. No. 2 hitter Chris Hall moved up to leadoff, No. 3 hitter Nick Senzel moved up to No. 2 and so on. It seemed to take everyone out of their comfort zone, however, and the coaching staff decided to try to get that back, but they needed to move someone else to the top of the order.
The son of the former Major League catcher with the same name had a miserable freshman season at the plate, hitting .132 but has been much better as a sophomore. Batting mostly in the No. 6 hole in a catching platoon with Tyler Schultz, he is hitting .385.
Santiago isn’t as patient as traditional leadoff hitters, with part of the purpose of the job being to force the opposing starter to throw pitches. He has just three walks so far this season. However, he has more speed than most catchers (three stolen bases on three attempts) and some power. Plus, he pairs well with Hall, who reached by walk 16 times and hit-by-pitch seven times and has a .514 on-base percentage.
“We just decided to put him at the top,” Serrano said. “Now it pushes everyone down into their normal slot. Benito brings an excitement at the start of the game. He can run into some balls. He brings an aggressiveness to the base paths. It just kind of made sense.”
It does, because it brings back the dynamic the Vols had early in the season with Moberg when they had three table setters in the No. 9, 1 and 2 spots with senior Derek Lance, Moberg and senior Chris Hall ahead of run producers Senzel, senior Vincent Jackson and junior Jordan Rodgers in the No. 3, 4 and 5 spots.
Moberg’s numbers will be hard for Santiago to duplicate. After batting .130 last season, Moberg was hitting .415 with a .519 on-base percentage and a Division I-leading 28 runs scored when his injury occurred. Santiago’s OBP is .418 because he has drawn just three walks this season in 56 plate appearances.
In Lance (.423), Santiago (.418) and Hall (.514), though, the Vols have three hitters with on-base percentages of .420 or better. If that keeps up, that will provide ample opportunity for Senzel, Jackson and Rodgers, who are responsible for all 13 of Tennessee’s home runs and a total of 105 RBI.
“They’re not all going to get on base every time,” assistant coach Aric Thomas said of Lance, Santiago and Hall. “But with those three guys in a row, you have a good chance of one of them to be on base and a lot of times two out of the three to get on base. … It’s the element of speed, too, they all can run. Now if you have a double with a man on first, he’s gonna score. I think you get more fastballs with the threat of the run.”
Making it an every-day lineup forced the Vols to find an additional position for Santiago, because catching every day makes for wear-and-tear on one’s knees. They have put him in right field the days Schultz catches, moving Hall from right to center and Lance from center to second base, which they decided to try when Moberg went down. On the days Santiago catches, Lance stays in center, Hall in right and senior Jared Pruett plays second base.
Lance and Santiago both had some experience at their new positions at the high school level. The Vols have hustled to get them up to speed, and Serrano believes both are at least serviceable.”
“It starts with athletic ability,” Serrano said. “Both Derek and Benito have athletic ability. Second, you’ve gotta go to both of them have played the position in the past. Derek was an infielder by trade in high school. That’s all he ever played before he got here, and Benito had a history in the outfield. … They’re a little rough around the edges, but it’s kind of what we have to do right now. Sometimes we have to sacrifice some things to be successful. This is kind of our sacrifice. I don’t like giving up defense but I don’t know how much defense we’re really truly giving up on an every-day basis. I’d say on a scale of a 1-10, they’re about a 6 or 7 on comfortableness. … We know we’re probably giving up a little bit from the defensive side of it, but hopefully we’ll make it up on the offensive side.”