Top billing: Santana homers in first leadoff AB

Top billing: Santana homers in first leadoff AB

DETROIT -- The concept of Carlos Santana as a leadoff hitter has intrigued Indians manager Terry Francona for a few years now. In each of the past two offseasons, Francona brought it up during an annual gathering with season-ticket holders. This past spring, the manager tried it a handful of times in Cactus League games.

For Friday's 2-1 win over the Tigers, Francona finally made the move in a game that counts. For the first time in his career, Santana served as Cleveland's leadoff man, and he responded well to the unfamiliar role. Facing Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander, Santana launched a home run in the first inning before adding an opposite-field double in the third.

After the home run, Indians first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. joked around with Santana.

"He said something about being Rickey Henderson," Santana said with a smile. "It was something funny."

Francona's reason for being tempted to go down this road is Santana's patience and on-base ability. Each season, the switch-hitting first baseman ranks near the top of the Majors in pitches per plate appearance and walks. Over the previous two years combined, Santana leads all of baseball with 221 free passes drawn.

Friday felt like the right time for Francona to try the experiment for a few reasons. Heading into the game, Santana had six home runs and six walks in his career against Verlander. On top of that, the manager wanted to give Rajai Davis (the leadoff man for 11 of the first 13 games) and Jose Ramirez (the leadoff hitter on Wednesday) the day off from starting.

"I just thought it made some sense tonight," Francona said.

After Santana's 2-for-4 showing, who will be the leadoff man on Saturday?

"I don't know," Francona said. "I thought he did a good job. He hit a home run his first at-bat. That was probably about as well as you could draw it up. But if he was hitting fourth tonight, he might've done the same thing and there might've been somebody on base."

Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo smiled when asked if he liked the idea.

"I think it's interesting," Van Burkleo said. "He gets on base a lot and he's a power threat. It's an interesting little twist, and I think it's kind of cool."

Entering this season, Santana had a run of five consecutive years with at least 90 walks, including 100-plus free passes in each of the last two campaigns. He was averaging 4.3 pitches per plate appearance in his career, which includes a .364 on-base percentage. As far as baserunning goes, Santana has also turned himself into an above-average runner in recent years (1.3 runs above average in 2015, per Fangraphs.com).

Davis, who has spent much of his career as a No. 1 hitter, liked the concept of Santana in that role.

"I think it's a great idea," Davis said. "The guy, if he wants to, knows how to go up there and walk to get on base. If he wants to be aggressive, that works for him, too. He can get on base and that's what you want. You need guys on base to really affect the pitcher."

In the first inning, Santana watched five pitches from Verlander before pulling a full-count fastball into the right-field stands for the first leadoff home run of his career. In the third, he slashed a 3-1 heater to the wall in left-center field for a double. He saw 11 pitches in those two at-bats and only swung twice. Following those two extra-base hits, Santana flew out to center in the fifth and grounded out in the eighth.

It was an early showing that supported Francona's belief that Santana could be successful as a tablesetter.

"Tito's been talking about it [for some time]," Indians general manager Mike Chernoff said. "He was so thoughtful in trying to get different perspectives on it. Ultimately, the lineup is completely his choice. I think in some ways, it's a great idea. He knows the pulse of the team. If he feels like this is the right move to get us going, then absolutely [we'll try it]."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.