Saturday September 27th, 2008

Less than 10 minutes had passed since Johan Santana had performed his semi-weekly Heimlich maneuver when the man who had brought him to New York for moments just such as this, Mets GM Omar Minaya, saw him leaving the clubhouse for his postgame interviews, he did what any fan would have done: Hugged him, and simply said, "Thank you."

Acting almost as if Minaya were a fan, Santana said nothing, barely even recognizing his boss. "He was still in competitor mode," said Minaya of the encounter later. "He still had that look like ... "

Minaya didn't have a word to describe the look on his ace pitcher's face, and there are quickly becoming no words to describe that same pitcher's brilliance or equate what he has meant to the Mets. Santana's stellar outing in the Mets 2-0 victory came with a stat line so pristine -- nine innings, no run, three hits, nine strikeouts -- it already registers among the best performances of his two-time Cy Young career. But it was more than that. On what may be the penultimate game in Shea Stadium's often overlooked history, Santana delivered what might well have been the best pitching performance by a Met that the building has ever seen.

"It's the best pitching performance I've ever seen in person, under the circumstances," said Mets third baseman David Wright.

"Using the word 'best' is hard, but I have to put it at the top," said Minaya. Mets manager Jerry Manuel gave it a different word. "Wow, wow, wow." He added, "If I have to describe that, I'd say it was gangsta." Consider the following: Santana bailed out the somnambulant Mets offense that dozed through a two-run, six-hit effort (giving them three runs and 13 hits over the past two games). He kept alive their precarious playoff fate. And he kept their entire season from being decided -- for at least one more day -- by a horrendous bullpen that has been such a nightmare that when Minaya was asked if he was nervous when Cody Ross hit a fly ball to the wall that ended the game, he said, "Oh, s--- yes. That won't go away until we have somebody like the Phillies do that gets 40-something saves."

In other words, had the ball gone out and tied the game, even their GM knew they were doomed.

But there is more. The crushing defeat from Friday night. The season careening toward the cliff, threatening to spill over had Santana not jerked the wheel to safety. The specter of last year's historic collapse looming over the entire organization. The price tag of $150 million and four prospects that it took to bring Santana to New York. The way he demanded, not asked, for the ball when his team needed him most. The fact that in pitching his first shutout of the year and just the sixth of his already storied career of 284 starts, he was doing something almost completely unexpected. Oh, yes, and he did it all in just the second start of his career on three days' rest, after he threw a career-high 125 pitches on Tuesday.

"I envisioned this happening when we got him," said Minaya. "I never envisioned him pitching this well on three days' rest."

"Did I think he'd throw a complete game shutout?" asked Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado with a smile. "No, but I hoped he would."

Of course, for this fday to have the lasting impact on Mets lore, they need to build on Santana's outing and clinch a playoff spot. That task will be entrusted not to Santana, but to the far mor pedestrian Oliver Perez, who will also go on three days' rest. Not that everyone associated with the Mets wouldn't love to have No. 57 on the hill again. After the game, Manuel was jokingly asked if there was any way Santana could pitch tomorrow. "How many pitches did he throw today?" came the reponse that was, we're pretty sure, facetious.

Based on the peformances he's delivered while going 9-0 with a 2.09 ERA since July 4, Manuel can be forgiven for thinking his ace is capable of anything so far-fetched. Indeed, Santana is that rare pitcher who manages to pull off the seemingly unimaginable with impressive regularity. Yet if he has a defining characteristic, it's that he is as stoic as he is effective, and while others are running out of words to describe him, Santana remains relatively unimpressed with himself. Asked after the game what he expected of himself on Saturday, he said, "To win. In this situation, all you want to do is help somehow."

He did much more than that. In fact, the lift Santana provided began long before he took the mound on a rainy, humid afternoon. Manuel and some of the players said just the thought that Santana was pitching helped lift their spirits before they even got to the ballpark. And his loose spirit in the clubhouse as the team waited out a 30-minute rain delay before the first pitch -- Mets catcher Ramon Castro said Santana was laughing and dancing in the clubhouse -- surely helped alleviate the mounting tension that has gripped this team for much of the month. If Santana seemed unaffected by the magnitude of the moment that awaited him, perhaps it's because to him, this is what he knows is supposed to do. "I knew before the game I had to do something," he said. "I felt from the very beginning I'd have a pretty good chance to go deep in the game."

With his changeup at its darting best, Santana was never seriously threatened. Even when the Marlins loaded the bases in the fifth, it came because Santana intentionally walked Hanley Ramirez with two out before getting John Baker on a harmless fly ball to right field. By constantly getting ahead in the count, he forced the Marlins to swing the bat, never allowing them the patient plate appearances that might have raised his pitch count high enough to take him out of the game. As a result, he was fresh enough to retire 13 of the final 14 Florida batters, including four of his nine strikeouts.

After the seventh inning, with his pitch count at 97, Manuel approached Santana to see how he felt. He got the same glaring straight-ahead reaction Minaya would see about 30 minutes later and that left Manuel to label Santana "the ultimate, ultimate competitor." In other words, it is the same look teams with championship dreams can only hope they don't have to face next week from 60 feet 60 inches away.

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