Santana shows off glove for Royals

Lynn Worthy
The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Kansas City Royals first baseman Carlos Santana acknowledges the cheers from fans as he takes his at bat in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians on Monday, at Progressive Field.

CLEVELAND — During pre-game introductions before the Indians' home opener in Cleveland Monday afternoon, the home crowd gave a noticeably loud round of applause to the opposing team's starting first baseman.

For a division rival, no less. Of course, Carlos Santana isn't just another visiting slugger for one of the Indians' mortal enemies.

No, Santana has long been Cleveland's guy. That was before he made the play that crushed the hopes of an Indians win at Progressive Field.

Santana's spectacular defensive gem started a double play that brought a potential ninth-inning rally to a screeching halt as the Kansas City Royals prevailed 3-0.

"I'm trying to go through in my head how many first baseman in the league make that play or maybe even attempt to make that play," Royals manager Mike Matheny said. "Obviously, he has a lot of confidence. He's a talented player overall, but he's the (rare) kind of defender with the aggressiveness he has, a fearlessness.

"That was amazing, how that one play can take the air out of an opposition. We were about to get into a bad spot right there if that ball gets by. There's no doubt about it, that's a game-changing defensive play."

Moments before, the Indians' offense had showed its first signs of life in five innings. A walk by Cesar Hernandez started it. Then Jose Ramirez swatted a single into right-center field.

With runners on first and second, no outs and a three-run lead for the Royals, Eddie Rosario swung at a breaking ball and ripped a ground ball down the first base line. For a split second, it seemed like the ball had its sights set on a path toward the right-field corner and sure extra-bases for Rosario. Santana pounced with cat-like quickness and reflexes, snatched the ball while moving towards the foul line, pivoted and rifled a throw to second base.

Shortstop Nicky Lopez hauled in the throw and then fired the ball to pitcher Jesse Hahn, who was covering first base, to complete the double play.

Lopez lauded Santana and expounded on the pivotal nature of that moment.

"Playing here since 2019, Cleveland is never out of it," Lopez said. "The fans are always in it. You can feel some momentum. What a play by a guy who was over in that other dugout a year ago.

"He came up huge. He threw a perfect strike to me. That was the hard part. A huge rally killer. I thought I could kind of feel the momentum swing right back to us."

Santana, who signed a two-year contract with the Royals this winter, ranks among the Indians' all-time leaders in walks (second, 881), home runs (tied for fifth, 216) and doubles (10th, 273). Santana played 10 of his previous 11 seasons with the Indians. He briefly left via free agency and played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2018.

After that season, he went to the Seattle Mariners in a trade and then was reacquired by Cleveland in a three-team deal that involved the Tampa Bay Rays, Mariners and Indians. After trotting out of the dugout during introductions, Indians manager Terry Francona strayed from his designated spot along the third-base foul line to give Matheny a fist-bump and half-hug.

Then Francona shared a moment with Santana.

When Santana's name was announced as he stepped into the batter's box for his first at-bat, the ovation from the crowd prompted him to step back out of the box. As the ovation continued, Santana tipped his batting helmet to the crowd in a sign of appreciation.

At the end of the night, Santana's flashy defense left Indians faithful lamenting a lost game and beloved first baseman.

"Santana making that play, that obviously is a big play of the game," Francona told reporters on his zoom call. "Because if that ball scoots by, we're in business."