Hector Santiago's spot in the White Sox rotation is secure, as the team's coaching staff decided to move Dylan Axelrod to the bullpen upon Jake Peavy's return from the disabled list.
The left-hander earned that role with a 3.13 ERA in 12 starts, in which he's limited hitters to a .677 OPS. With two and a half months left in the season, the next step for Santiago is to show the White Sox he can be a part of the team's future.
"I think it's just putting a lot of pressure on them to keep a four-man, left-handed rotation," Santiago said, referencing fellow southpaw starters Chris Sale, John Danks and Jose Quintana. "I think I definitely can compete for a job and pitched up against -- obviously Sale's an elite pitcher and we get the job done too, but I think I can fight for a job and put pressure on them to be like 'oh, Hector, he's pitched well enough that he can do it and that he belongs here.' "
Santiago has allowed two or fewer runs in eight of his dozen starts, and has six or more strikeouts in seven of those outings. But there's plenty of room for improvement, namely with his approach to begin games.
Walks and skyrocketing pitch counts have been a problem early on in games, which has led to Santiago struggling to consistently go deep into games. It's the product of who Santiago is as a player, as he's a guy with loads of energy. And all of that energy gets balled up and released every five days when he's pitching out of the rotation.
"It seemed like it's been the first two innings all year -- like, the first two innings are the kind of grind innings and then I go the next five kind of easier, lower pitch counts and get through it," Santiago explained. "The first two innings put all the pressure on me for later on in the game for how deep I'm going to do."
Josh Phegley has caught Santiago since the pair played in Single-A together, although that relationship was forged largely while Santiago pitched as a reliever. Phegley's now catching Santiago the starter, which is hardly the same.
"That's a daunting task," Phegley laughed when asked about reining in Santiago. "He definitely has the energy level and the geek to start every day of the week. I think he's in line in the future to be a one-man, five-day rotation guy.
"You like playing behind him. He's putting everything out on the line, and he's been bottling it up for a few days, and he gets to let it out there. To try to keep him calm, you gotta try to keep him loose, have fun, and make sure he's on the same page as you are and sticking to the plan. I know he can get a little excited and try to overthrow some stuff, but he's done great."
The strategy is to try to wear Santiago down a bit more prior to games -- that means doing a little more running and a little more throwing in the hour before a start. And Phegley wasn't completely overstating things with his starting-every-game comment.
Santiago explained how two years ago, while he pitched in winter ball in Puerto Rico, he threw out of the bullpen for six straight days, got an off day and threw 4 2/3 innings as a starter the next day. Teammates have joked he could throw 200 pitches one day and come back with another 100 the day after.
Santiago is a guy who wants to play every day, and was pumped up when told he could play in the outfield during an extra-inning game in Philadelphia last week. But for the most part, he's found a way to channel that energy, even though he's still a relative greenhorn as a starter. Santiago estimated he only had nine or 10 professional starts before this year.
"It was kind of like, yeah, I know I could do it, but it was more, can I do it on every fifth day, go out there and compete against big-league hitters all the time," Santiago said. "And I think, for the most part, I have. I feel like I can go out there every fifth day and pitch against whoever it is."
As Santiago settles into his role as a starter and doesn't have to think about getting bounced back to the bullpen, he and his teammates think he'll get better at reining in his energy. A snapshot of his better starts reveals plenty of success -- like his three-hit, one-run, nine-strikeout performance against Philadelphia on July 13 -- and a guy who could be a piece to build around as the White Sox sell off assets in the coming weeks.
"He goes through periods where he gets a little, I don't know if it's hyper but he's going too fast and has to slow down. That's more just a personality thing of him wanting to get it and go," Ventura said. "He's done great."