No one in the Cincinnati clubhouse — not the media, the other Reds players, the dressing room attendants helping the team pack quickly for its trip to Colorado — approached Ramon Santiago as he stood at his locker in stunned silence.
No one quite knew what to say and neither did he.
“No excuses,” Santiago finally said when everyone had left. “I had a job to do and I just couldn’t get it done. I take a lot of pride in my bunting. That’s my job … and today I didn’t do it.”
Brought in in the ninth inning Wednesday against Boston, not just as a defensive strategy, but for what he could do in the Reds’ final at-bat, the veteran infielder was then tasked with laying down a bunt to advance Cincinnati’s two base runners.
The Reds were trailing 5-4, but Skip Schumaker was on second and Zack Cozart was at first. Advanced by a successful sacrifice from Santiago, Schumaker would then tie the game by tagging up on an upcoming fly ball and the Reds could win with a hit.
Instead Santiago — “he’s our best bunter,” manager Bryan Price said — uncharacteristically popped three straight Edward Mujica pitches into foul territory and was called out.
The next batter, Billy Hamilton, did hit a fly ball to center, but it didn’t bring in the tying run. Schumaker was still stranded at second. Then Kristopher Negron tapped back to Mujica to end the game.
The loss was the Reds’ second straight one- run setback to Boston in as many days and the team’s 28th one-run defeat of the season. Cincinnati is 17-28 in one-run games. Last year the Reds were 27-22.
“When you lose these one-run games everything is magnified,” said Cozart, who had had his own problems bunting against Mujica before he salvaged his ninth-inning at-bat with a two-strike single.
“When you’re down seven runs or something, no one cares or thinks about not getting a runner in. But when it’s one run, you start to look up and down your game afterward and think: ‘We could have stopped a run here on defense. We should have moved a runner over there. We could have done this or that.’”
And Wednesday there were plenty of what-ifs for the Reds.
Price talked about his team missing the cutoff man in the first inning, which enabled Boston to score its second run.
And pitcher Mike Leake — even though he did hit a home run — was his own worst enemy, rushing his delivery at times and giving up eight hits and five earned runs in five innings. It was his 11th loss of the season.
But the most noticeable gaffe was Santiago’s failure to advance the runners in the ninth. As he returned to the dugout after striking out, Reds fans — out-cheered by vocal Red Sox backers much of the game — booed.
Afterward you could tell Santiago was hurt. Not by the crowd’s reaction, but his own failure.
If you Google his name, you find several headlines trumpeting his bunting heroics over his 13 seasons with Detroit, Seattle and even this year with the Reds:
“Detroit’s Santiago Executes Successful Squeeze Against Oakland.”
“Santiago Lays Down Perfect Bunt.”
“Santiago Leads Major Leagues in Sacrifice Bunts.”
The latter came from 2003, the first two in recent years. He has made his mark as one of the best bunters in the game. Wednesday was his 900th big-league game. In that time he’s come to the plate 2,388 times. He’s been asked to bunt so many of those times that it has become his proud trademark .
“Since I signed professionally, I’ve made it a big part of my game,” he said. “I knew it would be good to add it to my repertoire. It would give me something special.
“Today, right before the game, I bunted about 20 balls off the machine — just to be ready. I knew the situation could come up.”
So what happened?
In anticipation of the bunt, the Red Sox brought first baseman Mike Napoli halfway to the plate. Third baseman Kelly Johnson came in nearly that far.
“Because Napoli was so close, I didn’t want to ht it to him so I tried to bunt it to third base,” Santiago said. “I’ve done it a thousand times, but today I was dropping the head of my bat and I got too caught up in that. I was thinking about that too much.
“But I’ve got no excuses. I didn’t do my job.”
As he left his locker he added: “The thing is now I gotta get my head up. We all do. We’ve got a big road trip ahead starting (Friday) in Colorado.”
After the game some of the other Reds looked for threads of a silver lining:
“As bad as we’ve played we’re still right in the thick of our race and that’s a positive,” Schumaker said.
Cozart agreed: “It’s not time to panic. Brandon (Phillips) should be back soon. Our pitching keeps carrying us and we’re still playing good defense. When you do that, you can compete every game. And that’s what’s so crazy. As up and down as we’ve been the past couple of weeks, we’re still right in the thick of it.”
Schumaker then stretched optimism to the limit when he offered: “I was 11 games down at one point in September and we came back that year. We’re a long way from that.”
He was talking about one of the St. Louis teams he was on, not these Reds.
Afterward, Price seemed to sense the difference and the urgency:
“We’re in that two steps forward, two steps back mode. We’re not making up any ground. I’ll be honest, we came into today 5 1/2 back. We have to win against everybody. We’re playing hard, but we’re just falling short enough to lose by a run or two. We’re 4 ½ months into this. We’ve got to be better.”
Cozart summed it up best: “Good teams find a way to win these one run games.”
The Reds don’t.