Santana begs for ball, then won't give it up

NEW YORK -- It was a few months ago, back in June, and Jerry Manuel had just been named the new manager of the Mets. Torii Hunter approached Manuel before a game in Anaheim, Calif., and gave the new manager some sound insight.

"You really don't know what you got there," Hunter said about Johan Santana, his former teammate in Minnesota, and Manuel's ace. "This guy is really special."

Manuel knew, of course, but the beauty of the left-hander had not yet fully been revealed to him. Nor was it to anyone, perhaps not even until today, when Santana went above the enormous expectations that accompanied his arrival in a trade with the Twins this past winter. The Mets gave him six years and $137.5 million this offseason to be their ace, to repair a fractured team psyche -- it had just blown a seven-game lead over the regular season's final 18 days and missed the postseason -- and to re-establish the Mets as the elite of the National League East.

Santana could never truly do all that on his own, but on Saturday afternoon with literal clouds hanging over this soon-to-be extinct ballpark, he went out and pitched one of the best games teammates, opponents and management have ever seen in a 2-0 shutout against the Marlins. He kept the Mets alive another day in the National League postseason race -- thanks to a Brewers loss, the Mets are tied with Milwaukee for the NL wild card -- and left the game how he began it: with a standing ovation from a booming crowd.

"That," Manuel said, shaking his head, "was gangsta."

Indeed. Santana had gone just three days in between starts, not his usual four. Never before had he done that in the regular season, and it was against the backdrop of his most recent start, in which he threw a career-high 125 pitches. Never mind the pressure to keep his team afloat; from the moment he arrived in Queens, Santana has insisted that, to him, pressure doesn't exist. He was here to just do his job.

And before his start Saturday, Santana told himself that not only did he want to do his job and get the win, but he wanted to finish the game.

"I was going for it," said Santana, who threw 117 pitches.

He went for it by throwing his famous changeup against the flailing Marlins, who did little in the way of producing much against it: They had just three hits and struck out nine times. Santana was economical with his pitches, save for the fifth inning, in which he loaded the bases.

"He was like a guy you'd pay $130 million," Marlins catcher John Baker said, sighing after he was asked how Santana looked. "He changed his approach throughout, he pitched different with guys on base and he got ahead of hitters and doing it on three days' rest …

"That was probably the best performance I've seen."

Baker has been in the big leagues for only a few months, but Mets general manager Omar Minaya has spent his entire life around the game, and even he was pressed to name many better outings.

"Unless you work here and understand New York, to do this and the pressure-packed [environment] that is New York," Minaya said, "it gives it another level."

Manuel says the only reason Santana was on the mound Saturday was because he went into the manager's office and "begged" him to start.
Santana saw how his team was nearing another collapse, how the bullpen had been battered and that if he were not to start, then Manuel possibly would have been forced to throw rookie Jonathon Niese out there to save the season.

"The situation that we were in, there's no tomorrow," Santana said. "I don't think about tomorrow. I've got to do it today and that's the way you take care of business. For me, it was about helping my team and giving them a chance."

His teammates were left mostly shaking their heads. Since July 4, Santana is 9-0 with a 2.09 ERA in 17 starts. He threw his third complete game this season, and it was the sixth of his impressive career. The last Mets pitcher to throw a shutout on three days' rest was Dwight Gooden on Sept. 16, 1987. The numbers, records and stats are bountiful. But it's what Santana does for his teammates, and how he lifts them up before they even take the field, that's of equal value.

"I think we all should buy him dinner tonight," Ryan Church said.

Carlos Delgado was a bit more expressive.

"He's a tough competitor, and I knew he was going to give us all he had," Delgado said. "It definitely gives you hope."

Perhaps that hope will translate to Oliver Perez, who will also start on three days' rest Sunday and try to keep his team alive. Perez was on the bench for the entire game, and he saw up close Santana's dominance. He'll have a chance to try and duplicate some of the same, and perhaps evoke Shea Stadium magic one last time. Santana certainly did Saturday.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.