By: Brian Frank
Rafael Lantigua has only been with the Bisons for about a month – yet he’s already provided fans with many memorable moments in both the field and at the plate. No moment was bigger than a game at Sahlen Field on August 20 against Lehigh Valley when Lantigua went 3-for-5 with a double, walk, four runs scored – and hit a grand slam.
“It was my first grand slam ever,” Lantigua said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “When I hit that ball I felt really good, like – oh, I think I got that one. And when I saw the ball go, I thought – Oh yes! It was a really special experience.”
Lantigua said the game – in which he also collected seven RBIs – was probably his best since turning professional.
“Last year I had a really good game in Vancouver,” he said. “I hit two homers and a single – but a grand slam is a grand slam. So yes, I think it was my best game ever.”
Lantigua hit a grand slam and collected seven RBIs in a game in August. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
The 24-year-old slick fielding infielder began playing baseball at a young age in his hometown of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.
“The first time I went to a baseball field was with my father when I was five years old,” he remembered. “He pitched and hit ground balls to me. I just really liked it a lot. My father kept going with me to the baseball field and I just felt like – okay, baseball is the sport I love. As a kid in the D.R., I used to play in the street with the kids in my neighborhood also. Then when I was seven years old, I started playing little league. I played little league until I was sixteen years old and then I went to an academy to practice and just focus on getting signed as an international player.”
He was able to display his skills at the academy in front of numerous professional scouts.
“I was in the Amaurys Nina International Prospect League in Santo Domingo,” he said. “That was a really good academy. Every day three or four scouts were watching the practice and when there was a showcase there were hundreds of scouts.”
“I was an infielder, but mostly second base. Latin Americans usually play shortstop to sign. They want to know if you can play short because then you can play everywhere in the infield. So I was mostly a second baseman but I started practicing more shortstop. All the tryouts I did were at shortstop.”
Lantigua signed with the Blue Jays in August of 2016 and began playing for the organization’s Dominican Summer League team the following season at just nineteen years old.
“It was a really good experience because it was my first pro baseball year so I learned a lot about the game professional wise,” he remembered. “It was in my country so my family could come visit. I learned a lot because I had a lot of good coaches.”
In 2019, Lantigua played in the U.S. for the first time for Toronto’s Rookie League affiliate located in Bluefield, West Virginia, at the time. He had a solid season - slashing .303/.422/.376 in 48 games for Bluefield.
“I loved it because it was my first season playing night games,” he said. “I’d always played day games in the D.R. I loved the weather in Bluefield. It was pretty chill. I loved the view that Bluefield has with all the mountains. It was a nice experience and I had really good teammates that year too. I enjoyed that season a lot.”
Among Lantigua’s teammates that season were Gabriel Moreno and Alejandro Kirk. Lantigua recognized immediately that Bluefield had a pair of special players at the catching position.
“Since we were younger, those guys always played really well. We’ve always been really good friends but in your mind you’d think that guy’s going to be really good. Since the first time I saw them play I always thought those kids are going to be really good in the future.”
Lantigua avoided one challenge many Latin American players have when they first come to the states – learning a new language. He began learning English at a young age from his father, who’d learned the language because they lived in Puerta Plata, which is a big tourist destination for Americans.
“When I started speaking English, it was with my father. He speaks English and he started talking with me in English and I started learning how to speak a little bit. That’s how I started but then I got better in high school.”
However, there were still cultural differences that made coming to play in the U.S. difficult.
“It was more getting used to the food here,” he explained. “It’s way different than in the Dominican. I think that was the biggest thing. I had a host family that treated me really well and it felt like home. But it’s never easy to come to another country and get used to everything like the culture and the food.”
Lantigua has played second base, shortstop, third base, and left field for the Herd. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
He spent the next season in Lansing, Michigan, playing for the Blue Jays’ Midwest League affiliate at the time. He didn’t put up as good of numbers as he had the previous season – slashing .254/.302/.373 - but he views his time with the Lugnuts as a learning experience.
“It was my first full season,” he explained. “It was very hard because it was a higher level with better pitchers and everything. I struggled for part of the year. I learned a lot because I never had slumps before that. I learned how to play with slumps and to separate defense form hitting. That was a good experience. That year was really important for me because I learned how baseball works when you’re not doing good and when you do good.”
Unfortunately, the 2020 minor-league season never happened because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” he recalled of the start of the pandemic. “But after a couple weeks I knew it was going to be really tough to play that year so I started thinking about next season.”
So he returned to the Dominican Republic, where – just as he’d done as a kid – his dad hit him groundballs and helped him with his hitting to stay ready for whenever baseball was able to resume.
Fortunately, he had another opportunity to help keep his baseball skills sharp – the Dominican Winter League. Lantigua began practicing with and playing for Gigantes del Cibao, a team he’s spent the last three offseasons with.
“It’s been really fun to play there, sharing a clubhouse and dugout with those guys,” he said. “A couple of them are superstars in the big leagues. Always learning from them, asking questions about how to do this, how to do that. It’s always cool because you’re in your country and everybody speaks the language. It’s always a good experience to play winter ball.”
The next year, when minor-league baseball finally resumed, Lantigua played for the Blue Jays’ High-A affiliate, the Vancouver Canadians, at a time when the team couldn’t play in Vancouver due to the COVID-19 border shutdown. Therefore, they played their home games at Ron Tonkin Field in Eugene, Oregon. Despite the unusual situation, Lantigua was happy to just be playing baseball again.
“It was a really good experience because we went for a year without playing baseball and we all really wanted to play baseball again,” he said. “We felt like – finally we’re here. It didn’t matter where it was – Oregon, Vancouver – we just were focused on okay we’re playing baseball again. It was a little bit tough because we didn’t have crowds until like the middle of the season because we always played as a visiting team – so we didn’t have big crowds. But we always had fun with our teammates. So, yeah, I really liked it.”
Lantigua celebrates after another Bisons victory. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Lantigua had a solid season, slashing .280/.375/.470. He also hit 11 home runs and stole 26 bases, after stealing only nine in 2019. His performance at Vancouver earned him a late-season promotion to Double-A New Hampshire. He also began this season with the Fisher Cats, where he slashed .268/.345/.402 in 86 games, before being promoted to Buffalo on August 6. He’s continue to thrive with the Herd. Besides his stellar defense at second, third, and shortstop, he’s also been impressive at the plate – slashing .294/.383/.424 with two home runs and nineteen RBIs in twenty-six games with Buffalo.
“It’s been really different because here you have a lot of big league experienced guys every game,” he said of his adjustment to Triple-A. “You’ll have guys who are rehabbing or whatever. So the level is higher. It’s tough to play here. But the Blue Jays have really good players and teammates, so it doesn’t matter where you play, you’re at home. For me it’s been easy because I feel like I’m doing what I love, I’m playing with good guys, and I just go out every day and have fun.”
Despite all of his success this season, he continues to work hard to improve in all aspects of the game in order to reach the next level.
“I’ve been struggling a little bit with stolen bases this year,” he said. “I’m focusing on getting better again with my first step. I’m also trying to hit the ball hard to the gaps and trying to get as many extra-base hits as I can. I keep working on my outfield defense because I started playing outfield last year – I never played before – so I’ve been focusing on that too.”
Buffalo baseball fans have enjoyed watching Lantigua in the field – where he’s made spectacular plays all over the infield.
“Right now I feel like it doesn’t matter where I am, I feel the same confidence. After I signed, I kept working and trying to be better at each position. I think that helped me a lot because the better you can play all positions, the better chance you have to move up. So, yes I always focus on my defense. I focus on everything I have to do – but always on my defense.”