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Santana proving quite adept at first base

Santana proving quite adept at first base play video for Santana proving quite adept at first base

CLEVELAND -- Carlos Santana ran in from first base, anticipating the bunt from Baltimore's Jonathan Schoop in the ninth inning on Friday night. David Lough was ready to sprint to second on contact, but Santana knew that the runner might hesitate if the bunt was not perfect.

Santana's rapidly improving instincts as a first baseman paid off.

Schoop squared, but he bunted hard up the first-base line. In one swift motion, Santana charged, snared the ball on a short hop, spun and fired a stike to second base. It was a risk on the part of Santana, but Lough was cut down, and Cleveland picked up a critical out in its 2-1 win in 11 innings.

"I was thinking about catching the ball first," Santana said. "I wasn't thinking about second base, but I had a good read on the ball. It was a little bit of a line-drive bunt. And I know sometimes the baserunner stops. When I reached the ball, he stopped quickly, so I threw to second."

That play was one of the latest examples of how Santana -- in a season of position hopping -- has settled in as a reliable first baseman for the Indians. Cleveland's cleanup hitter entered the season as a third baseman and backup catcher, but those plans, as can be the case during a 162-game season, changed because of various circumstances.

The third-base experiment was not all for nothing, though.

Over the offseason, Santana worked hard on a transition to the hot corner, and he continued to work out at the position on a daily basis during Spring Training. All those ground balls that he took at third and all the practice to refine his footwork have helped him develop into a better defender at first base than in his previous short stints at that position.

Santana's recent play brings a smile to the face of third-base coach and infield instructor Mike Sarbaugh, who has been at the first baseman's side since the early days of spring.

"All that work he put in there this spring, it really translated to what he's doing at first -- the footwork, the reaction time, the ball off the bat," Sarbaugh said. "I think the one thing, at third, it's not only the reaction of catching it, but it's the footwork for throwing. He doesn't really have to worry about that as much at first base.

"Not that it's that much easier, but when you don't have to make the throw and you're a little bit closer to the bag, I think he feels really comfortable over there. I think a lot of that has to do with the work he put in at third."

The advanced metrics support the feeling that Santana has excelled at first, too.

According to FanGraphs.com, Santana has a -3.8 career UZR/150 defensive rating at first, but he has turned in a 4.0 UZR/150 there this year. That mark ranks fourth in the American League among first basemen with at least 500 innings. It also represents the best single-season mark for a Tribe first baseman (minimum 500 innings) over the past 13 years.

As far as traditional statistics go, Santana has only made two errors in his 597 total chances at first base, equating to a .997 fielding percentage.

Through Sunday, the Indians had committed a Major League-high 95 errors this season, making the defense an area in clear need of improvement. The midseason switch to first base for Santana has been the silver lining for a group that has labored to find a consistent rhythm in the field.

"We didn't anticipate having the defensive struggles we've had to date," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "Carlos has done a great job at first base. His hands work well, his feet work well, he's starting to learn some of the nuances of the position. ... He's done a really good job over there. That's been one of the encouraging developments of this season."

Santana's last game at third base, where he had six errors in 26 games, came on May 22 against the Orioles. His days behind the plate this season ended in that same series in Baltimore on May 25, when a hard foul to the mask sent him to MLB's concussion list. When Santana returned on June 6, he did so as a first baseman.

Since his return, Santana has hit .288 with 15 home runs and 42 RBIs in 63 games, turning in an OPS (.944) and a slugging percentage (.540) that rank fourth and fifth, respectively, among qualified AL batters over that time period. Prior to that stretch, while he bounced between third base and catching, Santana hit .159 through his first 50 games.

Santana believes, without a doubt, playing at first consistently has helped his offense.

"Yeah, I know me. I know what kind of player I am," Santana said. "If I play in the field, I feel comfortable, because I enjoy my time, enjoy my teammates. That's what's happened this year and that's what I like."

As well as Santana has played at first, Antonetti was not ready to say definitively that Santana's days as a catcher are over.

"Potentially, we could get to that point," Antonetti said. "We're not there yet. Our focus right now is, 'How do we win as many games as possible this year?' And then when we get to the offseason, we'll look at how we construct the best team."

Santana was not sure that he wanted to be done with catching, either.

"I don't know," he said with a shrug. "I like to catch. I miss it."

For now, Cleveland loves what it has in Santana at first base, even if looks can be deceiving.

Following his stellar play to rob Schoop of a sacrifice bunt on Friday night, Santana returned to first base with his hat crooked atop his head. Maybe he does not always look the part, but Santana's play at the position has been impressive.

"It's probably not an understatement [to say] that he's an above-average first baseman," manager Terry Francona said. "I don't know if Carlos always looks that athletic. Sometimes he's got his pocket hanging out or his zipper down, but he's very athletic. I think it's starting to show."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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