Francona enjoying Santana's career season

Indians skipper shares special bond with his first baseman

Francona enjoying Santana's career season

KANSAS CITY -- Before every game, Indians first baseman Carlos Santana brings one of his bats to manager Terry Francona in the dugout. Francona grabs it and plants a kiss right on the barrel. Sometimes, Santana will also remove his skipper's hat and kiss Francona's bald head for good luck as part of the ritual.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Santana is in the midst of a career year.

"I'll keep doing it," Francona said with a laugh.

Francona is not sure what is behind Santana's improvement this season, but he has enjoyed watching Santana loosen up behind the scenes and excel on the field.

Santana, Francona share a moment

After home runs, Santana can often be spotted doing a dancing celebration with second baseman Jason Kipnis. Before a recent game, Santana donned boxing gloves in the clubhouse and playfully jabbed at Michael Brantley. Santana also does a pretty good impression of Francona. All of those things, combined with improvement in the batter's box, bring a smile to the manager's face.

"I don't know why, but he's just in a better place," Francona said. "He's always been a real likable kid, but he just seems to be enjoying himself more playing. And, I mean, like with his teammates. It's really noticeable."

In Wednesday's 11-4 rout of Kansas City, Santana went 1-for-3 with a home run and three walks.

Santana is now batting .255/.353/.493 through 93 games. His average is the highest it has been since 2013, and he has never posted a higher slugging percentage of OPS (.846) over a full season. The switch-hitter has 21 homers, 41 extra-base hits, 54 RBIs and nearly as many walks (54) as strikeouts (60).

Entering Wednesday, Santana was one of only five players with at least 20 homers and 50 walks this year, joining Chris Davis, Josh Donaldson, David Ortiz and Anthony Rizzo on that short list. Santana has been heating up of late, too, posting a .342 average and 1.050 OPS in his last 20 games, dating to an 0-for-5 showing on June 26.

Entering Wednesday, Santana was one of only five players with at least 20 homers and 50 walks this year, joining Chris Davis, Josh Donaldson, David Ortiz and Anthony Rizzo on that short list. Santana has been heating up of late, too, posting a .342 average and 1.004 OPS in his previous 19 games, dating to an 0-for-5 showing on June 26.

"He's been a really dangerous hitter," Francona said. "And, for the most part, you look up and his walks and strikeouts are usually pretty close. Once in a while, his strikeouts might creep up a couple more, but you'll look up in a couple weeks and his walks will catch up. That's pretty amazing for how violent his swing is."

Francona has also appreciated Santana's willingness to embrace his versatile role.

In previous years, Santana complained about being used as a designated hitter, stating a preference to play first base. While Santana would still prefer to play in the field more often than not, he has accepted that he needs to be the DH on days when Mike Napoli handles first. On top of that, Santana has gone along with being bounced between leading off and hitting in the middle of the order.

"His attention to detail has been better," Francona said. "I don't know. He just seems to be enjoying playing the game more, which I'm thrilled about, because he's always been a good kid. He's a lovable kid."

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.