Philadelphia, PA – At what point does a shot at immortality outweigh the chance for season-ending glory?
Fans throughout New York aren't likely to forget Johan Santana's no-hitter anytime soon -- or ever for that matter -- but the shine of the milestone could quickly wear off depending on the outcome of his next start.
Yes, what Santana did in front of his home crowd on Friday night was indeed special, remarkable even given his absence last year due to shoulder surgery. But there is a lingering chance that the first no-hitter in Mets history comes with a price.
Prior to this season, the 33-year-old Santana hadn't thrown a pitch in the majors since Sept. 2 because of a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder. Despite some earlier doubts, Santana was able to make an Opening Day start for New York and pitched his 11th outing of the season on Friday versus the Cardinals. It also came five days after he needed only 96 pitches to complete a four-hit shutout of the Padres.
Santana was not as economical against visiting St. Louis, and though manager Terry Collins had hoped to limit his ace to around 115 pitches, the two-time American League Cy Young Award winner ended up unleashing a career-high 134 in his historic 8-0 victory.
Collins, in his second year as manager, was at a conflict as Santana's no-hit bid continued to extend. Should he stick to his guns and pull his star lefty due to the pitch limit, like he claimed he would have done in Jonathon Niese's no-hit bid way back on April 8, or let Santana take his chance at something special?
"[The emotions] weren't fun," remarked Collins after Friday's game. "Certainly I wanted it for him, wanted it for the organization, all the people that were here tonight, but you just don't jeopardize the whole organization, this season, for one inning. So we'll wait five days and see how it is."
Unlike Niese's situation, when the lefty had a no-hitter broken up in the seventh and Collins said afterwards he likely would have pulled his starter regardless due to a 115-pitch limit, Collins gave Santana a say in whether he continued in the game or not.
"He just asked me how I was feeling and I just told him I was fine. This type of situation, you don't even think about pitch count over anything. You're just trying to get quick outs and I was just going with it," said Santana.
The Venezuelan-born ace added, "He came over to me when I was sitting down in the dugout, and he told me I was his hero and that was the end of it. And then I told him I was not coming out of the game."
The gamble paid off and Santana threw the first no-hitter in the Mets' 51-year history in the franchise's 8,020th game. It leaves the San Diego Padres as the only club to have never thrown a no-no.
"I knew that the Mets had never had a no-hitter. I've never had one so this is very special. We worked very hard, all the things that I have been through and this is very, very special and I knew this means a lot to New York," Santana said.
Like most bids to hold teams without a hit, Santana got some help. Teammate Mike Baxter saved his starter's gem when he tracked down a deep hit by Yadier Molina, making the catch as he crashed into the wall. The left-fielder was forced to leave the game with a left shoulder contusion, showing just how much the Mets were willing to sacrifice for their respected ace.
Of course, the play that will have all of St. Louis crying foul came the previous inning with former Met Carlos Beltran at the plate. Making his first trip to Citi Field since last season's trade to the Giants, Beltran led off the frame with a liner down the third-base line that appeared to draw chalk as it skipped into left field. However, it was quickly ruled foul by third-base umpire Adrian Johnson to the protest of first Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo and then manager Mike Matheny.
Beltran, who spent the previous six-plus seasons with the Mets, later grounded out to end the at-bat.
"I thought it was a fair ball, but at the end of the day, you know what, one hit wasn't going to make a difference in the ballgame. We needed to score runs and we didn't do that," said Beltran.
Excitement mounted though Santana came within one pitch of issuing his sixth walk of the game with two outs in the ninth, falling behind last season's World Series MVP, David Freese. In perfect juxtaposition to his comeback from injury, Santana battled back and fanned Freese swinging on a changeup.
Santana was far from perfect as he said he attempted to use his fastball to set up his slider and his devastating changeup, long the left-hander's money pitch.
"It was a tough night because I was trying to establish some pitches and even though I was able to get some outs, there were times when I would walk some guys with four straight pitches. When you put guys on base, all it takes is for them to get a good swing and then they will score. I just stayed with it. It was kind of a roller coaster the whole game," he said.
Said Matheny, "His changeup was that good. You could see that's what the swing and misses were and it made his fastball look like 100 [mph]."
Odds are Santana's fastball is never going to reach that speed again, nor will he likely be a threat to win 20 games in a season, something he has done only once before in 2004 with the Twins. But armed with his changeup, the southpaw has looked like a pitcher who can be a much-needed anchor for the Mets' pitching staff this season. Through his 11 starts, he is 3-2 with two complete games and a 2.38 earned run average, helping the Mets sit just a game back of first place in the NL East heading into Saturday's action.
That, one season after their third straight fourth-place finish.
With no upcoming day off, Santana's next start will likely be Wednesday against Washington. Friday's no-hitter may take its toll on him and he could get hit right out of Nationals Park.
Or he could be just fine. There is no use debating it now as Collins has already pushed his chips to the middle of the table.
It is also interesting to note that the Mets finally got their no-hitter in the same season that the White Sox's Philip Humber threw a perfect game back on April 21 in Seattle. Humber was one of four players the Mets traded to the Twins in February of 2008 for Santana.
That could have left a bitter taste in the mouths of New York fans, but Santana instead provided a sweet drink of sweet baseball ambrosia.
"It couldn't have happened to a better guy and just an amazing story. The way that he's come back from this injury and I can let you know first hand," said nine-year Mets veteran David Wright, "I was there with him in Florida throughout some of his rehab last year, the work and the time that he put in to get himself back to this point. I thought that his last start was special, but this start, I guess it's once every 51 years."
The Mets don't need Santana to pitch a no-hitter in his next start. They just need him to pitch.