ATLANTA — As the Phillies opened their most important series of the season Thursday night, Carlos Santana started at third base for the sixth time in 14 games, which enabled Rhys Hoskins to play first base.
A sneak preview of next year's corner infield?
Not necessarily. But like almost every other move that manager Gabe Kapler has made, anything's possible.
Santana has shifted from first base to third recently for reasons that go beyond the Phillies wanting to see him at a position he hasn't played in four years. For one thing, third baseman Maikel Franco (shoulder) and fellow infielder Asdrubal Cabrera (calf) have been banged up. For another, Kapler has prioritized outfield defense behind certain pitchers, including Thursday night starter Vince Velasquez, and therefore preferred Hoskins at first base rather than in left field.
"It's kind of the combination of those things that makes us feel comfortable putting Carlos over there rather than just evaluating Carlos defensively in a vacuum," Kapler said. "However, all of that being said, he's done a good job [at third base]."
Until the first inning on Thursday night, that is. Positioned at shortstop with the Phillies playing a shift, Santana couldn't knock down Freddie Freeman's bouncer in the hole. One batter later, Nick Markakis lined a single to drive in the tying run for the Braves.
Santana came up as a catcher with the Cleveland Indians in 2010. Five years later he moved to first base, where he has started 139 games for the Phillies after signing a three-year, $60 million contract before this season.
Kapler began talking to Santana after the all-star break about the possibility of playing third base. Santana has limited exposure to the position, making 26 starts there for the Indians in 2014. And although he didn't have to make any truly difficult plays through 49 innings at third base entering Thursday night, he did make the routine ones.
"The cool thing about third base is, generally speaking, because the ball gets to you so quickly, it's step and dive one way or the other," Kapler said. "You're trying to knock the ball down. You're trying to record one out most of the time. He makes good decisions, and he's a strong, accurate thrower."
Whether or not Santana is a third baseman next year depends on other offseason moves. If, for instance, the Phillies trade Franco or sign marquee free-agent outfielder Bryce Harper, they could be compelled to keep Hoskins at first and Santana at third. But if they don't acquire an outfielder, Hoskins could return to left field and Santana to first base.
"So far, he's had chances that he's been able to convert," Kapler said before the game. "There's always the chance that a play to his left that he isn't able to get to people will have questions about. And that's OK. We understand that."
One night after landing hard on his right shoulder after diving to make a throw, infielder J.P. Crawford wasn't in the lineup.
Crawford, who started the three previous games, reported soreness in his shoulder that bothered him when he tried throwing. Hitting was less uncomfortable, so he was available off the bench as a pinch-hitter.
In Crawford's absence, Cabrera returned to the lineup at shortstop after not starting the previous two games with a strained left calf.