TWO OF A KIND

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jason Kubel, the silent hero at Highland High, speaks softly, carries a big bat and has been compared to John Wayne.

His teammate, John Santor, is the opposite, barking out orders around the basepaths, behaving loud and raucous off the field and, at times, playing the role of a distinctly different John . . . Belushi.

Apart, they're as different as can be. Together, they have turned around the fortunes of the Highland baseball team.

Kubel, a senior center fielder rated the nation's No. 50 high school prospect by Baseball America magazine, could be the smoothest player in Highland history. Despite pressing a little early in the season, the left-hander is batting .421 with four home runs.

"He's the best we've had," said Coach Mike Van Cheri of Highland. "He's like a natural. He's Mr. Automatic."

Santor, also a senior, is Mr. All-Around-the-Infield.

He played second base last season, moved to third this season and moved to catcher last month when Daniel Champieux strained a knee ligament. Champieux returned to the lineup this week, but Santor has remained behind the plate.

Considering his dizzying tour of the infield, it's surprising Santor isn't suffering from vertigo.

"I'm comfortable with all of [the positions]," said Santor, whose future is probably at third base. "I'm doing it to help out the team. This is my last season and I want that [championship] ring."

Santor belted his ninth home run of the season in the Bulldogs' 9-6 loss to Palmdale on Wednesday.

He has hit 29 home runs in his career, easily a school record, though skeptics partially credit his prodigious output to friendly Antelope Valley winds.

"That's preposterous," Van Cheri said. "He hits them everywhere. The wind has absolutely nothing to do with it."

Van Cheri points to Santor's grand slam early in the season at Thousand Oaks. Van Cheri said the home run, which propelled Highland to a 4-3 victory, traveled more than 400 feet.

"There's no wind over there in Thousand Oaks," Van Cheri said.

Pro scouts aren't sure what to make of the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Santor. Some say he needs to get in better shape. Others believe he is surprisingly nimble for his size.

Santor caught the eye of a scout last year who was evaluating former Highland player Jason Allec.

"I see this big guy playing second base and I was like, 'What's he doing out there?' " said the scout, who requested anonymity. "But he's got a good feel for the game. He's got a nice swing too."

The educated guess is that Santor will be selected in the later rounds of the draft in June as a draft-and-follow who could be signed after one year at a junior college.

The book on the 6 foot, 190-pound Kubel is more defined. He has decent power and a good arm.

One scout compared Kubel to Chris Testa, who batted .500 with 11 home runs last season for Palmdale. Testa was drafted in the fifth round by the Colorado Rockies.

"He's not a huge kid," a scout said of Kubel. "But he's got nice skills. He's got very good arm strength. Defensively, he gets a good jump on the ball and he's got nice hands on grounders and flies. I wish more kids played like him."

Said another scout: "I think he's got the make-up to get to the big leagues. You find one out of every 100 like that. The guy can hit."

Kubel stays on an even keel, an approach suited for a pro career.

"He's the John Wayne of the team," Van Cheri said. "He doesn't say much, but when he talks, people listen."

Kubel might be reserved, but he's not afraid to put his money where his mouth is.

Last summer, Kubel wagered Palmdale pitcher and longtime friend Matt Harrington he could hit a home run off Harrington at Palmdale. They bet $10.

In the Bulldogs' first game at Palmdale last month, Kubel struck out, singled and walked against Harrington. Palmdale won, 4-3.

On Wednesday, Kubel grounded out twice and walked twice, though it didn't qualify under the terms of the bet because Harrington didn't pitch. Today, however, someone will be $10 richer. Will Kubel homer against the Falcon ace?

"I sure hope so," he said. "But not if he keeps throwing me outside like he has been."

Highland (9-4, 5-2 in Golden League play) needs the victory. Another loss to Palmdale (11-4, 5-1) and the Bulldogs can forget about repeating as league champion.

Regardless of the outcome, Kubel and Santor turned around the program. In the four seasons before their arrival in 1998, the Bulldogs were 29-67 overall and 13-34 in league play. Since then, Highland is 46-21 and 29-8.

"It's going to be a really sad day when these guys leave," Van Cheri said. "It's going to be strange not having them here."

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BY THE NUMBERS

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2000 AB R H AVG John Santor 33 17 16 .485 Jason Kubel 36 14 16 .444 1999 John Santor 83 44 46 .554 Jason Kubel 80 53 44 .550 1998 John Santor 79 23 28 .354 Jason Kubel 87 30 38 .437 Totals John Santor 195 84 90 .462 Jason Kubel 203 97 98 .483

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