If preventing runs from scoring is the primary job of a pitcher – and why shouldn’t it be? – then no hurler ever had a better start to his career with the Tigers than Victor Santos.
Who, you say? Victor Santos of the 2001 Detroit Tigers, of course.
Santos was a rookie in 2001, and not expected to make the big league club. He was undrafted when the Tigers signed him out of high school in New Jersey t the age of 18 in 1995. A muscular right-hander, Santos had a strong arm, topping out in the low to mid-90s with his fastball. But he had control problems. He also had a knack for surrendering home runs. When he came to spring training in 2001 he was given a chance to make the big league club mostly because the Tigers had few options in their farm system. Santos impressed manager Phil Garner with his velocity and went north with the team. In the sixth game of the year, Garner trotted Santos in for mop-up in a lopsided loss to Minnesota. The rookie walked a couple and allowed three runs, but only because of an error. Two days later in another laugher loss to the Twins (the Tigers would lose 96 games that season), Santos spun an inning of run-free baseball. Garner used his rookie in long relief the three weeks, all in losses. And even though Victor struggled with his command at times, he kept the opposing team off the scoreboard. On May 4 in Anaheim he pitched 3 1/2 innings of scoreless relief against the Halos, even though he walked four.
But Santos was stingy at allowing base hits, and after seven relief appearances and a 0.00 ERA, Garner gave him a start against the Angels at Comerica Park. Beyond Jeff Weaver and knuckler Steve Sparks, the Tigers had a ramshackle rotation, and Santos was the best option. He dazzled against the Angels, retiring the first 12 batters, and carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Adam Kennedy finally broke up the no-no, but Santos left after six without having allowed a run and just the one single. He had now gone five weeks and eight appearances in the majors without allowing an earned run. Unfortunately he had yet to earn a victory, however. His performance had earned him another start, though.
In his next start, Santos had great stuff again. he didn’t allow his first hit until the fourth inning, struck out the side in the fifth, and spun a shutout into the sixth before allowing his first earned run in the major leagues when Gerald Williams smacked an RBI double. Still, Victor left the game having thrown six innings and allowing just two runs. Staked to a 12-run lead he won his first game in The Show. Most impressively, the rookie right-hander had set a franchise record for most shutout innings to start his career. Santos had gone 27 1/3 innings pitched without allowing an earned run, allowing just 12 hits, with 19 K’s and 17 walks, over nine games and two starts.
His next three starts were not as good, as he got rocked for seven runs by the Indians, four more by the Indians, and six in four innings by the Red Sox. Garner put Santos back in the bullpen, and then after a stint on the sidelines with arm soreness, Santos came back and made two more starts in July, pitching well. But his control issues caused Garner to relegate him to the pen the rest of the season. Santos ultimately was used in several roles as a reliever, but it was his only season as a Tiger. he was traded to the Colorado Rockies during spring training in 2002, one of six teams he toiled for over the next six seasons. he never again regained the form he had over those few starts and the relief stretch early in 2001, and remains a footnote in Tigers history. But for a few weeks he was as stingy as any rookie pitcher ever was for the Bengals.