By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — The specifics of Edgar Santana’s improbable baseball career aren’t especially complicated to retrace, but they are a little hard to believe.
The story started with a skinny 19-year-old who never had played organized baseball being put on a pitcher’s mound in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, and instructed to throw hard. The entirety of his baseball education was the four-seam fastball grip he had just been shown.
“I had no idea how to throw,” recalled Santana, now a 25-year-old right-handed reliever on a swift ascent through the Pirates’ minor league system. “My mechanics were a mess.”
After the first pitch, the trainer holding the radar gun whooped and asked Santana to throw another. He obliged, and again the screen blinked 85 mph. That number was all arm, too. Santana was clueless about the wind-up and follow-through. His right foot never left the rubber.
“We can make you a lot of money,” the trainer told Santana.
In the Dominican, top players typically sign as international free agents at 16. Santana knew a couple of them but didn’t envy them. He didn’t play baseball. Until the trainer, Nelson Calvo, saw Santana playing catch with his cousin, Santana was destined to become a teacher.
At home, the family’s only income was from his father’s job as a hotel housekeeper. Santana planned to go to college, but the baseball dream — and a chance at a contract — was alluring. He decided it was worth the risk.
The learning curve was steep. Santana trained, raising his average fastball velocity to 92 or 93 mph, and then began tryouts. He tried out first for the New York Yankees. The scout said he had to come back and bring his boss. Santana tried out for the Yankees six more times.
“A new boss every tryout,” Santana said, “and a ‘no’ each time.”
A low-90s fastball was fine for a younger player, but scouts assumed Santana had reached his max. He tried out for the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros. He even went to an academy for overaged and underdeveloped players who hoped to play professionally in Japan.
“I stayed there for one week and they said, ‘No, you can’t be here anymore.’ ” Santana said. “I was very, very sad. … My father said, ‘You’re wasting your time. Playing baseball is crazy.’ ”
After particularly discouraging tryouts, Santana went home and threw his glove in the corner. He’d leave it there for a week and consider quitting and going to college. Finally, Calvo phoned an old friend, Pirates scout Juan Mercado, and asked for a favor. Come see this kid Santana. With more food and a weight room, he said, the velocity will spike.
Mercado believed, signing Santana four days before his 22nd birthday, and told the pitcher he had one year to audition in the Dominican Summer League. Santana had learned how to pitch, but not how to play baseball. During drills and fielding practice, he was the last man in line.
“I was so scared,” he said. “But I knew my situation. I couldn’t lose any time. I had to learn fast.”
Santana had a 3.66 ERA in 19⅔ innings for the DSL Pirates in 2014, and reached Class A in 2015. Last year, he rose three levels — from Class A Bradenton to Class AAA Indianapolis — and he also struck out 18 over 13⅔ scoreless innings in the Arizona Fall League.
In his first major league spring training, Santana has been impressive, allowing three runs and striking out 10 in seven innings. The two runs he was charged with Monday against the Tampa Bay Rays came courtesy of suspect outfield defense from Phil Gosselin and Jose Osuna. Santana employs two-seam and four-seam fastballs, pumping gas in the mid-90s, and is working on a changeup general manager Neal Huntington said might develop into a weapon.
Santana’s strikeout pitch, however, is a sharp slider manager Clint Hurdle recently remarked “seems to have a left turn signal on it.” Santana learned from DSL pitching coach Jairo Cuevas. They worked on the pitch for a month and half before it clicked.
“When I got it,” Santana recalled, “I said, ‘Wow. This pitch is so nasty.’ ”
Santana likely will start the season at Indianapolis. If healthy, he will be a depth option for the Pirates bullpen this year.
Thursday, Santana bounced back after starting his outing by allowing a leadoff triple to the Red Sox’s Brock Holt and then throwing a wild pitch. The next three batters, though, went down quietly. With two outs, Hanley Ramirez swing through two pitches and then watched strike three.
“Makes a very good major league hitter look not good on a three-pitch at-bat to end his inning,” Huntington said. “Nice recovery for him.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
Game data: Pirates 5, Rays 4
Starter: Jameson Taillon — 4⅓ IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 4 K.
Hitter: Jordy Mercer — 1 for 1, 1 HR, 2 BB, 2 RBI.
Of note: Jose Osuna clubbed a two-run home run to left field off Rays left-hander Ian Snell. Osuna is batting .417 this spring and leads the Pirates in home runs (5) and RBIs (14).
News of the day
The operative word after Taillon’s start Monday was “inconsistent.” Taillon said his delivery was inconsistent, he walked two batters and the sharpness of his stuff came and went.
“[Taillon] was consistently inconsistent,” manager Clint Hurdle said.
But Taillon navigated well in tight spots. All but two of his 13 outs came via strikeout or ground ball. In the third, a grounder bounced off his kneecap and directly to first baseman Josh Bell.
“It’s what I was trying to do,” Taillon joked. “Just a nice ricochet right there. Now only if the one off my head last year would have just flown in the air to the shortstop, we’d be good.”
Three batters later, Taillon got Evan Longoria on an inning-ending double play.
To Taillon, the start was a sign of maturity. When he was younger, he said, an outing like this one might have snowballed. His curveball lacked bite. His command wavered. But he understands his arsenal better these days, so he relied on his two-seamer and endured.
“That’s kind of the fight,” Taillon said. You have good days and bad days. You try to just shorten the gap between good and bad. I thought I did a good job of fighting through it.”
Taillon expects one more Grapefruit League start and another in Montreal before opening day.
Tuesday: vs. Rays, 1:05 p.m., LECOM Park, Bradenton, Fla. TV: Root Sports. Radio: KDKA-FM 93.7.