WASHINGTON — Phillies first baseman Carlos Santana lathers his bat with so much pine tar that the shoulders of his uniform top often have a trace of brown glaze from resting his bat there while he's at the plate.
"I love the mark on his shoulder," manager Gabe Kapler said before Sunday night's game against the Nationals. "I love that any time I need something sticky on my hand, I can just tap him on the shoulder."
Most batters use the sticky substance the way Kapler does, as a way to get a better grip. But not Santana. He gets his grip from wearing batting gloves and wrapping his bat's handle with tape. Santana covers his bat with pine tar – using more than any other Phillies hitter – to give himself a visual reminder when he's at the plate.
The four bats he pulled Sunday from his locker had pine tar running from the knob all the way up the handle before stopping right at the barrel. MLB rules mandate that a batter can cover no more than 18 inches of his bat with pine tar. Santana pushes it to the limit. The untouched part of the bat — the barrel — is where Santana wants to make contact.
"It puts it into my mind to hit the ball on the barrel," Santana said. "It's a reminder to stay with my approach. I'll look after a foul tip and remember to get it closer to the barrel. I'm thinking about that all the time because that's where I want to hit it."
Santana started covering his bat with the pine tar last year when he was going through a tough stretch with Cleveland. It was something new to try. He finished last season with an average exit velocity that ranked in top third of all hitters.
"It worked because I put it into my mind to focus on contact," Santana said.
The Phillies pointed to that hard contact early this season as Santana struggled in his first month with the team. But the results have started to shift. He entered Sunday batting .299 with a .926 OPS in his last 123 plate appearances since May 22.
Santana is now reaching base at a high rate, hitting for power, and still producing solid contact. His average exit velocity — 88.9 mph — is nearly the same as last season. His 21 barrels — a metric created by MLB's Statcast that measures balls that are hit with an exit velocity and launch angle that equates to at least a .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage — rank 42nd among 264 major-league hitters. Santana is making contact with the barrel of his bat. Just like his pine tar tells him.
"If we were building a team, that's how you build a team," Kapler said. "Now that he's getting hits and he's hitting for power and still walking, you can really see the value of the profile. I don't think Rhys [Hoskins] is dissimilar to Carlos in the makeup. But if you're going to build a lineup from top to bottom, you build them [with hitters] like Carlos Santana."
Gabe Kapler was still focused on the Nationals before Sunday's game, but it was hard to not think ahead to the arrival of the Yankees this week at Citizens Bank Park. The manager admitted that he's already thought about how the Phils will match up Tuesday against Yankees righthander Luis Severino in the second game of the series. It is the Yankees' first regular-season trip to South Philly since 2006.
"I imagine because of how close Philly and New York are that there will be some Yankees fans in the ballpark," Kapler said. "And given how well we've played at home and how much support we've gotten from our fans, I think our fans are likely to drown out any of that."
Infielder Jesmuel Valentin was placed on the paternity-leave list and Dylan Cozens was activated from the disabled list. … Pat Neshek will make another rehab appearance after pitching a perfect, two-strikeout inning Saturday with high-A Clearwater. "He came off the field feeling healthy, 100 percent with his arm," Kapler said. "And we'll get one more rehab outing and decide what to do after that." … Vince Velasquez will start Monday's series opener against Yankees rookie righthander Jonathan Loaisiga.