Santana continues remarkable comeback with Mets' first no-hitter
Johan Santana threw the third no-hitter of '12 in the Mets' win over the Cardinals
Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner, missed all of '11 after shoulder surgery
He was aided by an umpire's missed call and left fielder Mike Baxter's catch
The Mets had played 8,019 regular season games and 64 postseason games across 50-plus seasons before June 1, 2012, but it wasn't until Johan Santana held the Cardinals without a hit on Friday night that one of their pitchers had thrown a no-hitter.
Over that span, there had been 160 no-hitters in the major leagues. Tom Seaver threw one ... for the Reds. Dwight Gooden threw one ... for the Yankees. Ex-Met Nolan Ryan threw a record seven, all for other teams. Even failed Mets prospect Philip Humber, who was sent to the Twins in the trade that brought Santana to Queens in 2008, threw one, a perfect game at that, earlier this season. Humber was the eighth ex-Met to complete a no-hitter, the second to throw a perfect game, but before Friday night, the closest the Mets had come, despite having a pitching-friendly home ballpark since 1964 and employing some of the best pitchers of the last half century, had been a bid by Seaver that was broken up with two outs in the ninth in 1975.
Including Santana's, there have now been 12 no-hitters in the last two-plus seasons, a frequency which has taken some of the shine off the accomplishment, but this one was special, not only because of the history above, but because of the pitcher who threw it.
From 2004, his first season as a full-time starter, to 2008, his first with the Mets, Santana was the best pitcher in baseball. Over those five seasons, he posted a 2.82 ERA (157 ERA+), a 1.02 WHIP, struck out more than a man per inning with a 4.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio, recorded a .688 winning percentage, and never finished worse than fifth in the Cy Young voting, finishing third twice and winning the award in 2004 and 2006 (and deserving it in '05 as well). That was not the Johan Santana who took the mound on Friday night, however.
The Johan Santana who no-hit the Cardinals on Friday night wasn't a lock to be on the Mets' Opening Day roster this spring. Enter spring training, he hadn't thrown a regular-season pitch in nearly a year and a half, dating back to Sept. 2, 2010. Santana suffered an anterior capsule tear in his pitching shoulder in that start, had surgery a week and a half later, and spent all of the 2011 season trying to work his way back, suffering multiple setbacks, throwing three abbreviated rehab starts in the low minors, and ultimately being shut down in September when the team became uncomfortable with him pitching at maximum effort. Santana threw in the low-to-mid-90s in his prime, but his average fastball this season has been 88.4 miles per hour.
Still, Santana's famous change-up was sharp when he took the mound this spring, and his arm didn't protest as he worked his way up to throwing 90-plus pitches at full effort. Santana not only proved healthy enough to make the team but, aside from an ugly outing in his third start of the season, excelled. Santana's strikeout rate, which had fallen off after his arrival in New York, was back up over a man per inning, and six of his last seven starts before Friday night were quality. His last was a four-hit shutout of the Padres in which he struck out seven men and threw just 96 pitches.
He's not the pitcher he used to be, and Santana himself admitted after Friday night's game that he still doesn't know if he ever will be, but his comeback from a surgery that could have been career-ending (anyone heard from Pedro Feliciano or Dallas Braden recently?) was already remarkable, even before the no-hitter.
Which brings us to the dark side of Santana's accomplishment. He had trouble controlling his fastball and walked five men, putting a man in scoring position via a pair of walks in the second. Mix in seven strikeouts and several deep counts (Santana went to a full count on a batter six times and needed six pitches to strikeout David Freese for the final out), and Santana needed a career-high 134 pitches to accomplish the feat. To put that pitch count in context, Santana's previous high this season was 108, he broke 120 just once in 2010, and his previous career high of 125 came way back in 2008. Santana's rising pitch count added an extra element of drama to Friday night's game and eliminated any possibility of Mets skipper Terry Collins honoring the baseball superstition of not talking to a pitcher making a run at a no-hitter. Collins had to check on Santana, and did, even visiting the mound after a two-out walk to Rafael Furcal in the eighth. Santana time and again said he felt fine, of course, but Collins was clearly emotional after the game both about Santana's accomplishment as well as the possibility that he may have allowed him to damage his shoulder in pursuit of history.
Then there's the fact that Santana actually did give up a hit, or would have if Major League Baseball had expanded instant replay. Leading off the sixth inning, ex-Met Carlos Beltran pulled a 1-0 pitch from Santana hard down the third baseline. The ball was ruled foul, but replay showed that it actually hit the foul line just behind the bag, kicking up chalk and leaving a mark on the line, none of which registered with third base umpire Adrian Johnson despite protests from the Cardinals' coaching staff. Beltran grounded out to third on the next pitch.
That blown call aside, it was special night in Queens. They say every no-hitter needs one exceptional fielding play, and on Friday night that play was executed by leftfielder Mike Baxter, a 27-year-old rookie who was born in Queens, went to high school in Queens and grew up a Mets fan. With one out in the seventh, Yadier Molina, who broke Mets' fans hearts with a series-winning home run in the 2006 National League Championship Series, lined a ball to the warning track in left where Baxter made a desperate catch while falling into the wall with such force that he immediately had to be removed from the game.
So, the Mets not only got their no-hitter, but they got it at home with a local kid making the key defensive play.
The question now is how Santana recovers from those 134 pitches. Some have suggested the Mets be ultra cautious and skip his next start. No one would blame them if they did. Mets fans, no matter their age, had been waiting for Friday night for as long as they had been Mets fans, and no real baseball fan, regardless of his or her allegiance would want to see Santana's tremendous comeback put in any more danger.
They say that flags fly forever, that postseason accomplishments can excuse a lot of otherwise questionable decisions. The same applies here. Whatever the rest of the season holds for Santana, he, his teammates, the Mets, and their fans will always have June 1, 2012.
Don't worry, Terry, it was worth it.