Commentary

A tale of two pitchers in Citi matinee

Chances are, Santana wouldn't hesitate to trade his present for Strasburg's future

Updated: April 14, 2012, 1:21 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

The surgically repaired Stephen Strasburg has something the surgically repaired Johan Santana does not, something more valuable than an extra seven or eight miles per hour of bad intentions to lean on.

Time. Strasburg is 23, a kid who can roll with the Washington Nationals' grandest designs and, hey, if they don't work out, plan a free-agent escape to a more credible franchise in the middle of his prime.

Santana, 33, has already made his big career move. He left Minnesota for the bright lights of Broadway and gambled his best years on the New York Mets, never the safest bet.

So when Santana sat in his Citi Field dugout as Strasburg made a mockery of the Mets' lineup, he watched a burgeoning ace in possession of baseball's most precious commodity: a boundless future.

Johan Santana, Stephen Strasburg
AP PhotosJohan Santana and Stephen Strasburg dueled on Wednesday afternoon in a game that featured a typical ending: a Mets loss.

How much of his own $137.5 million contract would Santana trade for that?

"He's good," the two-time Cy Young Award winner said of Strasburg. "He commands three pitches and he's got a good fastball and he throws everything for strikes, and he challenges you.

"So it's good. He's going to have a lot of games ahead of him and I'm pretty sure he will get better."

Yes, Strasburg will get better and better, assuming his right elbow doesn't blow out a second time. But Wednesday, the phenom who Nationals manager Davey Johnson compares to a young Doc Gooden proved he was already plenty good enough to throw six scoreless innings of two-hit, nine-strikeout ball at the Mets, who managed three lousy singles in all.

It was a fitting way to honor the 50th anniversary of the franchise's first game -- the first loss in a season that would see 120 of them. The Nationals won 4-0 because Strasburg was a little better than his dignified elder, and because six Mets pitchers surrendered 10 walks.

"We were lucky it was only 4-0," said Terry Collins, who knocked his wayward arms and lifeless bats.

"The last two innings we took some balls right down the middle," said Collins, "and we cannot do that."

Suddenly the 2012 Mets have devolved into the old Mets again, losing on the field and in the trainer's room. David Wright was killing the ball before he broke his right pinkie diving back into the first-base bag, and the lineup has that Buffalo Bisons feel without him.

"My gut tells me that you'll see him Friday," Collins said, and if there's one thing fans have learned about this franchise it is this:

If the Mets say they have a gut feeling the skies will be clear, you'd better bring your umbrella.

Jason Bay, the $66 million man, gets double-switched out of a 1-0 game. Josh Thole, the catcher, can't catch. Ike Davis, the young slugger, has one hit in 20 at-bats (though Davis still gathers in a mean foul ball).

These are the Mets the aging, recovering Johan Santana has to work with.

"One thing I want to do," said Collins, who got himself ejected, "is try to get him some runs so he can relax a little bit instead of having to make every pitch mean something."

Santana has had shoulder, elbow and knee surgeries as a Met, so yes, he could use a little breathing room in the early hours of this latest comeback. But one wild pitch with two outs in the second -- resulting in the only run Santana allowed -- was the one mistake the starter couldn't afford, and his 99 pain-free pitches and eight strikeouts over five innings were reduced to mere consolation prizes.

"I'm just trying to do my job," said Santana, who has given up one run in 10 innings and has an 0-1 record to show for it. "I'm pretty sure we'll put things together and they'll start swinging the bat and scoring runs. That's part of the game. ... I cannot go away from what I have to do, which is pitching and trying to give my team a chance to win."

Win, lose or draw, Santana has a pro's pro way with postgame words. He's as accountable in his news briefings as he was at the end of his first Mets season, 2008, when he ignored the torn meniscus in his knee and threw a three-hit shutout at the Marlins on short rest.

The Mets failed to make the playoffs the next day, and haven't made it since. Santana never expected to go four consecutive years out of the tournament, especially after making regular appearances in Minnesota. He badly wanted the money the Twins couldn't pay him, of course, but he also figured the Mets had the team and payroll to land him his first trip to the World Series.

Now Santana is stuck on a rebuilding big-market team with a receding small-market budget. His $24 million wage counts for more than a quarter of the Mets' payroll, and next year's salary of $25 million and change won't help expedite the team's attempt to become a legitimate contender ASAP.

Santana wouldn't be in this position if the Yankees traded for him before the Mets did. As it turned out, Brian Cashman decided to keep his young pitchers and wait a year to sign CC Sabathia, the ace of the 2009 championship team.

After losing a full season, Santana is content for now to chase smaller victories. His rebuilt shoulder allowed him to approach Collins' stated goal of 105 pitches and allowed him to hit 90 on the radar gun twice, once on a satisfying strikeout of Strasburg with the bases loaded in the second.

"It was a tough challenge out there," Santana said, "but it was good to see I was able to go beyond 80 pitches and go out there without any problems."

His opponent, Strasburg, hit 98 on the gun and, by Santana's own account, did a better job of making in-game adjustments. The kid weathered an uneven first inning that included a nasty strikeout of Davis on a full-count curve. "He was on top of his game after that," Santana said.

Strasburg made it through 108 pitches, and then Johnson saved him for another day. On the winning side of Citi Field, in an attempt to compliment the losing pitcher, Washington's Mark DeRosa said this of Santana: "He's a grinder."

The ace of the Mets doesn't want to be known as a grinder. Chances are, Santana would trade his present for Strasburg's future in a New York minute.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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