Monday, March 30, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Johan Santana

Sports fans have wonderful memories, although not all of those memories are pleasant.  In fact, certain names or phrases can act as trigger words to followers of sports teams, eliciting groans and bringing back painful memories.

Mention the name "Bucky F. Dent" to any Red Sox fan and they know exactly which game you're referring to and what Dent's middle initial stands for.  Similarly, fans of the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans cringe when the words "one more yard" are uttered.

For Mets fans, the magic words are "seven games up with 17 games to play".  That was the lead the Mets had over the Philadelphia Phillies in the division going into the final 17 games of the 2007 season.  But none of the team's pitchers stepped up during the season's final two and a half weeks.  A team like the 73-89 Washington Nationals, who finished dead last in the league in home runs and runs scored, found a way to blast ten homers and cross the plate 53 times in five late-season victories over New York.  And of course, who could forget the last-place Florida Marlins hammering a seven-run nail into the Mets' coffin during the first inning of the season's final game?

Despite having two future Hall of Famers on the staff in Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine, the Mets didn't have a stopper in the starting rotation during the final weeks of the 2007 campaign.  John Maine had the game of his life in the season's penultimate game, but allowed 11 runs to the Nationals and Marlins in the two starts prior to his Game No. 161 effort.  Oliver Perez, who matched Maine with a team-leading 15 wins in 2007, couldn't get out of the fourth inning in his final start and was outpitched by Marlins starter Byung-Hyun Kim.  It would be the final victory in the majors for Kim, who posted an 8.21 ERA in nine late-season appearances for the Marlins, just six years after he blew back-to-back save opportunities as a reliever for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series.

Having lost the division to the Phillies in 2007, the Mets knew they had to upgrade their pitching, especially once they allowed Glavine to return to his former team in Atlanta.  The free agent class was bereft of ace pitchers, so the Mets were going to have to make a trade if they wanted a true No. 1 starter.  They found their man just weeks before pitchers and catchers were due to report.  And even though he never led the team to the postseason, he still produced one of the most magical moments in the team's history.

Johan Santana put his fist through 50 seasons of no-hit futility.  (Howard Simmons/NY Daily News)

Johan Alexander Santana made his major league debut with the Minnesota Twins in 2000, but didn't become a full-time starting pitcher until midway through the 2003 season.  Santana earned his first win as a regular in the Twins rotation on August 3, then wouldn't stop winning.  Over the season's final two months, Santana went 8-0 with a 2.51 ERA, striking out 70 batters in 68 innings.

Santana cemented himself as one the game's best pitchers from 2004 to 2007, when he led the majors in wins (70), strikeouts (983) and WHIP (0.99), while placing second to Roger Clemens in ERA (2.89 to Clemens's 2.68).  But Santana was due to become a free agent following the 2008 campaign and was pricing himself out of Minnesota's range with each solid performance.  Knowing they would have a tough time re-signing him without breaking all the piggy banks in the state, the Twins decided to deal Santana prior to the 2008 campaign.

Originally, it was thought that the Yankees and Red Sox would be the most likely suitors for Santana's services.  But Mets general manager Omar Minaya swooped in and pried the two-time Cy Young Award winner away from the Twins with a package that centered around top prospect and future All-Star Carlos Gomez.  The Mets also sent three pitchers - Philip Humber, Deolis Guerra and Kevin Mulvey - to Minnesota, then signed Santana to a six-year, $137.5 million contract extension to complete the deal.

Santana had a brilliant first season in New York, going 16-7 with a league-leading 2.53 ERA and 1.148 WHIP.  Santana also struck out 206 batters, breaking Jon Matlack's 35-year-old team record for strikeouts by a left-handed pitcher.  Santana could have won as many as 23 games, but the bullpen coughed up the lead in seven of his 11 no-decisions.  Santana didn't allow the bullpen to blow his final start of the season, as he pitched a complete game, three-hit shutout against the Marlins, throwing 117 pitches just four days after tossing 125 pitches against the Chicago Cubs.

Alas, Santana's performance didn't help the Mets advance to the postseason in 2008, but it was enough to help him finish third in the National League Cy Young Award vote, making him just the seventh Mets pitcher to finish in the top three, joining Tom Seaver (1969, 1971, 1973, 1975), Jerry Koosman (1976), Jesse Orosco (1983), Dwight Gooden (1984, 1985), David Cone (1988) and Frank Viola (1990).

Following Santana's Herculean effort in which he threw 242 pitches over a five-day span, it was revealed that he had been pitching with a torn meniscus in his left knee over the season's final month.  Just four days after his final start, Santana underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair his balky knee.  It was his first time under the knife as a Met.  It would not be his last.

From 2009 to 2011, Santana made just 54 starts for the Mets, with only one of those starts coming in the month of September.  When he was healthy, Santana was still quite efficient, as evidenced by his
3.05 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in those 54 starts.  But Santana just couldn't stay on the field after his inaugural campaign in New York.

Santana's 2009 season ended in August because of bone chips of his left shoulder.  A year later, his 2010 campaign was abbreviated due to a torn anterior capsule in his throwing shoulder.  The same injury caused Santana to miss the entire 2011 season, after several rehab attempts caused Santana to feel shoulder fatigue.

Entering the 2012 campaign, the Mets were a shadow of the team that contended for a division title in Santana's first year with the club.  New York won 70, 79 and 77 games during its first three seasons at Citi Field and never posed a serious threat to crashing the postseason party.  But after not pitching in a major league game in nearly 18 months, Santana was ready to help the Mets win in 2012.  Not much was expected from Santana or the Mets entering the campaign.  Those expectations changed dramatically during the season's first two months.

Behind five shutout innings from the returning Santana, the Mets claimed a 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day.  New York won its next three games as well, giving the team its fourth 4-0 start in franchise history.  The Mets continued to shock the skeptics over the first third of the season, never falling more than four games out of first place in the competitive National League East.  The team had exceeded expectations due to the emergence of two pitchers - R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana.

Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey were Amazin' during the first half of 2012. (William Perlman/The Star-Ledger)

In 1948, the term "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" was coined after Boston Post sports editor Gerald V. Hern wrote a short poem about Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain - the two best pitchers in the Boston Braves rotation.  Sixty-four years later, the Mets were asking for "Dickey and Santana and rain for mañana" as New York's co-aces combined to go 9-3 with a 2.91 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 121 strikeouts in 123⅔ innings over the season's first two months.  After Dickey and Santana participated in back-to-back shutouts of the San Diego Padres in their final starts of May, the Mets entered June within striking distance of first place.  They would earn a share of first during the month's first series, a four-game set with the St. Louis Cardinals.  But what happened in the first game overshadowed everything else that followed in the series.

The Mets entered the month of June reeling from a loss to the Phillies - a game in which five relievers combined to allow eight runs in the final two and a third innings.  New York desperately needed starting pitcher Johan Santana to stop the bleeding, hoping he could give the team a lengthy effort to give the bullpen a short break, similar to the complete game he gave them in his previous start.

Santana was due to face the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and their ace, Adam Wainwright.  It was Wainwright who ended the Mets' dreams of playing for a title in 2006, when the then-reliever struck out Carlos Beltran to end the NLCS - the same Carlos Beltran who was now a member of the Cardinals, and who was getting ready to face the Mets for the first time since he was traded to San Francisco the previous summer.  Those were just some of the intriguing storylines going into the game, but a new story began to write itself as the game progressed.

Through three innings, neither pitcher had given up a hit, although Santana had walked two batters and Wainwright had allowed one free pass.  Santana walked his third batter of the game to lead off the fourth inning, but retired the next three batters in order.  The game's first hit did not occur until the bottom of the fourth, when Kirk Nieuwehuis led off the inning with a single.  A double by David Wright moved Nieuwenhuis to third base.  Both runners eventually came around to score, as Lucas Duda drove in Nieuwenhuis with a sacrifice fly and Daniel Murphy plated Wright with a triple.

Santana now had a two-run cushion to work with as he stepped on the hill in the fifth, but once again, he began with the inning with a walk.  Although he retired the next three batters to face him, he needed 13 pitches to record the three outs, moving his pitch count to 79 through five innings.  Santana had yet to allow a hit, but his high pitch count was beginning to make manager Terry Collins antsy in the dugout.  In his first ten starts of the season, Santana had averaged just 92 pitches per start, never throwing more than 108 in any of them.  He was an inning away from surpassing his average and two frames away from potentially having his highest pitch count of the year.  The Mets went down quietly in their half of the fifth inning, sending Santana back to the mound quickly for the sixth.  The first batter he would face was Carlos Beltran.  And that's when third base umpire Adrian Johnson became a household name in Flushing.

After taking a first-pitch ball from Santana, Beltran smoked the southpaw's second pitch down the left field line, which was ruled foul by Johnson.  Replays later showed that the ball had kicked up white dust when it hit the ground, meaning it was a fair ball that had just grazed the foul line.  But two years before the advent of instant replay, the call was not changed, and Santana's no-hitter would live to see another pitch.  That pitch would be his 82nd of the night, and it would be another hard-hit ground ball by Beltran, although this time it settled into the glove of David Wright, who threw over to Duda on first to easily retire Beltran.

Adrian Johnson agreed with David Wright's foul call, keeping Johan Santana's no-hitter intact. ( screen shot)

Given a break by Johnson's missed call, Santana proceeded to retire the next two batters he faced, although his pitch count through six innings was up to 93.  The Mets were still clinging to a two-run lead as they came to bat in the bottom of the sixth.  It took just one swing of Lucas Duda's bat to make that a five-run cushion.

Following a leadoff single by Nieuwenhuis and a walk to David Wright, Duda launched a long three-run homer to right field, giving the Mets a comfortable 5-0 lead.  The blast also gave Duda four RBI on the night, matching his career high.

Santana returned to the hill in the seventh with his no-hitter intact and a commanding lead on the Cardinals.  He retired David Freese on a pop-up to lead off the inning, then went to a 3-1 count on catcher Yadier Molina.  It had been six years since Molina had broken the hearts of Mets fans by hitting a two-run homer in the the ninth inning of Game Seven in the 2006 NLCS.  And when he lined Santana's 102nd pitch to deep left field, the initial feeling was that he was about to break their hearts again.  But left fielder and Queens native Mike Baxter would not allow that wound to be re-opened, as he ran back to the warning track with surgical precision to make an over-the-shoulder catch before barreling into the wall at full speed.  The no-hitter was saved, but Baxter's shoulder was not, as he had to be placed on the disabled list with injuries to his collarbone and rib cage.  Baxter's all-out effort kept him out of action for nearly two months.

After Baxter was helped off the field, exiting to a rousing ovation, Santana continued to keep the Cardinals off the "H" column on the scoreboard, retiring Matt Adams on a groundout to end the seventh inning.  Santana had now matched his season high by throwing 108 pitches.  Under any other set of circumstances, Collins would have removed his ace from the game, especially with a five-run lead.  But Collins knew that Santana was chasing history, and he was not going to get in Santana's way, no matter how tempted he was to remove his injury-prone pitcher.  Even with the Mets adding three more runs in their half of the seventh on a bases loaded walk to Wright and a two-run single by Murphy, knocking out Cardinals starting pitcher Wainwright in the process, Santana was going out to the mound to start the eighth inning.

Santana got a break when Tyler Greene swung at the first pitch he saw, flying out to left fielder Nieuwenhuis, who had moved over from center field after the injury to Baxter.  Nieuwenhuis had to multitask on the play, as he had to make the catch and avoid shortstop Omar Quintanilla, who was running back into shallow left field to try to make the play himself.  Pinch-hitter Shane Robinson then looked at a called third strike before Rafael Furcal drew a five-pitch walk from Santana.  Once again, Carlos Beltran walked up to the plate.

In his previous at-bat, Beltran came within Adrian Johnson's questionable call of breaking up Santana's no-no.  This time, he was trying to prevent Santana from becoming the first Mets pitcher since Tom Seaver in 1975 to take a no-hitter into the ninth inning.  Beltran couldn't end the no-hitter in the sixth inning and he couldn't end it in the eighth, as he swung at Santana's 122nd pitch of the game, hitting a soft pop-up that was speared by a running Daniel Murphy in front of second base.

Carlos Beltran tried to burst Santana's bubble, but Johan refused to blow it. (Christian Peterson/Getty Images)

In the bottom of the eighth, Santana was due to bat third in the inning.  He was already three pitches away from matching his career high in pitches thrown, which he accomplished in his next-to-last start of the 2008 season.  On that September evening, Santana was pitching with an injured knee.  He had since been injured several times.  But once again, Collins did not lift Santana from the game, allowing him to bat for himself with a runner on first and one out.  Santana struck out on six pitches, then Andres Torres grounded out on the only pitch he saw to end the inning.

Johan Santana marched back to the mound to start the ninth inning as the 27,069 fans in attendance rose in unison to give him a standing ovation.  Santana needed 122 pitches to navigate through the first eight frames.  None of those pitches resulted in a hit by the Cardinals.  He was three outs away from baseball immortality.

Tom Seaver was the first Mets pitcher to take a no-hitter into the ninth inning, retiring the first 25 Cubs hitters he faced on July 9, 1969.  He then gave up a hit to rookie Jimmy Qualls to end his run at perfection.  Forty-three years later, Santana retired leadoff hitter Matt Holliday on a first-pitch fly ball to Torres in center field.

On July 4, 1972, nearly three years to the day after his first failed no-hit bid, Seaver held the San Diego Padres hitless through 8 innings.  But outfielder Leron Lee spoiled his quest for history by lacing a one-out single in the ninth.  Forty years later, Santana coaxed outfielder Allen Craig to hit a looping fly ball that settled into the glove of Nieuwenhuis in left.

Seaver took a third no-hit bid into the ninth inning on September 24, 1975.  This time, he retired the first two batters he faced before allowing a single to Cubs outfielder Joe Wallis.  It had been 37 long seasons since a Mets pitcher had taken a no-hitter into the ninth inning.  And all that stood between Johan Santana and baseball history was David Freese.

Freese had been named World Series MVP just seven months earlier.  But he was facing the Mets' most valuable pitcher on his special night.  Freese took Santana's first three pitches for balls.  Then he took a strike.  Then he Paul Hoovered a ball gently down the third base line that eventually rolled foul.

Santana had thrown 133 pitches.  He had Mets killer Yadier Molina on deck hoping for another shot to break up his gem.  He needed to end the game now.  Radio broadcaster Howie Rose and television play-by-play man Gary Cohen were on hand to call the game from their respective booths at Citi Field.  And they were the ones who painted the picture of Santana's 134th and final pitch.

Photo by Ed Leyro

"Johan sweeps a little dirt away from the left of the pitching rubber, steps behind the rubber, tugs once at the bill of his cap, takes a deep breath and steps to the third base side of the rubber.  Santana into the windup.  The payoff pitch on the way - SWUNG ON AND MISSED!  STRIKE THREE!  HE'S DONE IT!  JOHAN SANTANA HAS PITCHED A NO-HITTER!  IN THE EIGHT-THOUSAND AND TWENTIETH GAME IN THE HISTORY OF THE NEW YORK METS, THEY FINALLY HAVE A NO-HITTER! ... PUT IT IN THE BOOKS!  IN THE HISTORY BOOKS!"

 --Howie Rose, WFAN radio call

SNY Photo

"He struck him out!  IT HAS HAPPENED!  In their 51st season, Johan Santana has thrown the first no-hitter in New York Mets history!"

--Gary Cohen, SNY TV call

After his historic pitching performance, Santana made eight starts for the Mets before being placed on the disabled list with a right ankle sprain in late July.  He returned to the team three weeks later, but was shelled for 14 runs in two starts.  Santana was once again put on the disabled list, this time with lower back inflammation, and was shut down for the season.  He never pitched again for the Mets, as his 2013 campaign was also wiped out due to injury.

Santana stayed healthy over a full season just once in six years as a Met, missing two full seasons in 2011 and 2013.  Despite missing large chunks of time during his tenure in New York, Santana still ranks as one of the most successful left-handed starting pitchers in franchise history.  Among all southpaw starters, Santana ranks in the team's all-time top ten in wins (46; 8th), ERA (3.18; 6th), WHIP (1.20; 4th) and strikeouts (607; 6th).  He also ranks first among all Mets pitchers in no-hitters with one.

Johan Santana didn't make Mets fans forget about "seven games up with 17 games left".  In fact, for most of his time in New York, he was known for not being able to pitch due to his penchant for getting injured.  But he did leave the Mets with a couple of words the team's fans never expected to hear: no-hitter.

For Mets fans who suffered through all the near-misses, whose hearts were broken by the likes of Jimmy Qualls, Leron Lee, Joe Wallis and Paul Hoover - players whose names would long be forgotten had it not been for what they accomplished in failed no-hit bids by Mets pitchers - the events of June 1, 2012 were even more meaningful for them.  The Mets had allowed at least one hit in each of their first 8,019 regular season games.  They allowed none in Game No. 8,020.

He may not have led the team to the promised land as most people expected him to do following the Mets' epic late-season collapse in 2007, but Johan Santana did lead the team's fans to a place they had never been before.  And in doing so, Mets fans will always remember exactly what they were doing as pitch No. 134 gave the team no-hitter No. 1.  Santana's moment in time is one that will never be forgotten.

YouTube video courtesy of Mark Egan

Note:  One Mo-MET In Time was a thirteen-part weekly series (that's "was" - the past tense of "is" - because you just read the final installment) spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki
January 19, 2015: Steve Henderson 
January 26, 2015: Ron Swoboda
February 2, 2015: Anthony Young
February 9, 2015: Tim Harkness
February 16, 2015: Kenny Rogers, Aaron Heilman, Tom Glavine
February 23, 2015: Mike Vail
March 2, 2015: Matt Franco
March 9, 2015: Shawn Estes
March 16, 2015: Dae-Sung Koo
March 23, 3015: Al Weis

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