Home again: Santiago excited for Bronx trip

Home again: Santiago excited for Bronx trip

Home again: Santiago excited for Bronx trip
CHICAGO -- At the end of June, Hector Santiago is going home.

It's not that Santiago is preparing for a trade or taking some sort of personal leave. The White Sox left-handed reliever will be joining the team in New York for a June 28-July 1 visit to Yankee Stadium, just a short trip away from where Santiago's path to the Majors began as a kid in Newark, N.J., and at Bloomfield Tech High School.

Plenty of Santiago's support system will be making the 20-minute journey to hopefully see him on the mound.

"Everybody has been calling me up trying to see when I'm going to throw," Santiago said. "I'm like, 'I don't know when I'm throwing. I can't tell you. Just pick a day and hopefully get lucky with those tickets.' But I'm excited."

Santiago has already experienced a season's worth of highs and lows during his debut campaign, and the White Sox are only 60 games into the 2012 season.

Although he made a lasting impression through 5 1/3 innings of scoreless relief during a 2011 callup, the 24-year-old simply wanted to break camp with the team when he arrived in Glendale, Ariz., back in late February. But his dominant Cactus League showing (2-0, 0.82 ERA in 10 games), not to mention a screwball he refined since it was taught to him during 2008 winter ball in Puerto Rico, allowed the White Sox to think a little outside of the box and name Santiago as their season-opening closer.

And here's where the highs and lows of baseball came rushing at the affable southpaw. Santiago converted three straight save opportunities against Texas, Cleveland and Detroit, before blowing a lead against Baltimore on April 16 by allowing ninth-inning solo homers to Nolan Reimold and Adam Jones.

A more gut-wrenching blown save came in Oakland on April 25, when the White Sox grabbed a two-run lead in the 14th, only to lose the game when Yoenis Cespedes hit a game-tying two-run homer and Kila Ka'aihue followed with a walk-off single. Those five straight A's hits off Santiago basically moved him from his ninth-inning job to a setup man, a role he admits to feeling more like himself.

"Coming into the season as a closer was huge and a great opportunity," Santiago said, "but it was tough, because you added the pressure of wanting to pitch well and finish games.

"I'm more in a relaxed state with the bullpen now. It's about going out there and getting the job done. Once I lost the closer's job, I definitely realized that, going out and pitching on a regular basis, it was a different feeling. I put a lot of pressure on myself.

"Now I'm pitching not really with more confidence, because I was confident when I was closing," Santiago said. "It's just feels like less pressure, even if it's a big situation where I'm coming into pitch."

White Sox rookies like Santiago benefit from the leadership of manager Robin Ventura, a true even-keeled personality who quietly puts his player in the best possible position to succeed.

Consummate White Sox professionals such as Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski and fellow relievers Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain, to name a few, serve as sounding boards for players such as Santiago, while trying to get them to the high level where they play. But the rookies on this team also serve as positive reinforcement for each other.

Nate Jones and Santiago live in the same downtown Chicago apartment complex and carpool together to U.S. Cellular Field.

"We've always roomed together coming up," said Jones, who has played with Santiago for parts of the past six professional baseball seasons. "We bounce it back and forth and see what one or the other saw, because we know each other."

"Me and Nate talk a lot," Santiago said. "We are big on helping each other out, trying to figure things out and what we are doing."

Visiting Yankee Stadium will remind Santiago of the many people who have influenced him in the climb to the big leagues.

Angel Miranda, a left-hander who started and relieved for the Brewers from 1993-97, taught Santiago that all-important screwball. Miranda was one of the last pitchers who threw the screwball and felt Santiago had the perfect arm slot for it. Using that particular pitch made Santiago's changeup even better.

Bobby Thigpen worked extensively with Santiago on his way to the White Sox. Santiago talked to his manager at Rookie-level Bristol and his pitching coach with Class A Winston-Salem throughout the year, even when they weren't playing, and Thigpen imparted one primary piece of advice.

"'Just be consistent,' that was the main thing he told me," Santiago said. "He was like, 'If you are consistent with your stuff and the way you go out there and have a good day, try to mimic that the next day. That's what they want at the next level.'"

At this next level, pitching coach Don Cooper and bullpen coach Juan Nieves have provided major assistance. But New York will be about origins for Santiago, thinking of the impact his father, Hector, had on him as a player and developing his character as man. He'll also think back to a close group of four friends, including Santiago, who pushed each other to take the next baseball step.

"We would always just pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, let's go to the fields,'" said Santiago, who has a 4.91 ERA to go with four saves, along with 25 strikeouts over 22 innings. "It was more on our own that we push ourselves to be better and take this as a career though high school and college. They loved the game as much as I do."

One of those good friends was Burt Reynolds, the one who played baseball and isn't the famous actor. Reynolds also happens to be the cousin of Robinson Cano, who Santiago looks forward to facing during his New York homecoming.

"Definitely. I'm ready for it," said a smiling Santiago, when Cano was mentioned. "There will be a lot of family there, his family and my family."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.