- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- Losing ace Johan Santana to arm trouble again has always been the New York Mets' second-worst nightmare scenario after never getting him back from shoulder surgery at all. And now that Santana has become the Mets' second starter to go on the disabled list in the past week, joining Dillon Gee there Saturday, the Mets undeniably need to make a move to shore up their pitching.
But for the next week or so, anyway, it seems likely they're going to forgo dramatics and stay in the same conservative mode they were in before, which is waiting for Johan. Again.
And riding All-Star knuckleballer R.A. Dickey until he drops.
Maybe right up until the July 31 trade deadline.
It's the right thing for the Mets to do, even if fans will be breathing down their neck like a hot draft from hell, screaming for them to do something to stop them from sinking even further in the standings than they have the past week.
Trying to get by with some combination of minor league call-ups such as Jeremy Hefner and Matt Harvey and the intriguing notion of pitching Dickey a bit more here and there on short rest, then re-evaluating closer to the trade deadline, isn't as sexy as the rumors that the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Mets' opponent Saturday at Citi Field, have inquired about the Cubs' Ryan Dempster and his 2.11 ERA in their quest to win the National League West.
Nor is preaching patience as fun as screaming, "Show us the money!" at the Wilpons and urging the much-maligned Mets owners to at least OK a pitching rental for the rest of the season if the organization isn't willing to cough up the talent or prospects it would take to buy a seriously good pitcher who will be here for a very long time.
But a long-term fix is the sort of help the Mets really need. Not some grandstanding stop-gap pickup to stay in the chase for a wild-card spot that, remember, guarantees them only one playoff game under the new rules. And hewing to that approach is especially smart if Santana was correct Saturday when he told reporters after the Mets' 8-5 loss that he doesn't expect to need longer than 15 days on the DL -- a time frame that would cost him only two starts.
The Mets said they made the move because Santana's right ankle, which has remained sore since it got stepped on while he was covering first base three games ago, was hurting his mechanics and command of his pitches. For all the talk about his 134-pitch no-hitter finally catching up to him, the stats say differently: He had an 0.50 ERA for three starts before the ankle injury, but his ERA is 13.50 since then.
"My shoulder is fine," Santana insisted after Saturday's game. "But when you start compensating [because of the ankle], you get different results, especially with command."
"That's how you get hurt," Mets manager Terry Collins said.
So don't let the Mets' grit fool you into wishful thinking. The Mets are a flawed team even with Santana. When their starting pitching lapses, their already-shaky bullpen looks even worse with overuse. But the sight of Dickey -- who had started just two days earlier in Washington and accounted for the Mets' lone win in eight games since the All-Star break -- gamely walking in to pitch the ninth inning Saturday was another reminder that fairy tales don't always last.
"It's not something he's used to doing," Collins said of Dickey pitching in relief. "I salute him."
"We needed arms, so you go," Dickey told reporters with a shrug.
When caught alone by his locker later, Dickey said he didn't consider it likely that the Mets would immediately switch to perhaps starting him on short rest every fourth day the rest of the season to keep them in contention -- something Collins had raised as a possibility before the All-Star break.
"The way it would work would have to be around off days and other people's schedule," Dickey said. "[Collins] had it all mapped out a while ago, but we haven't looked at it for a while since. So you'd have to ask him. I don't want to talk out of school. But it's certainly something I don't see happening in the next 10 or 12 days, anyway."
By then, Santana could be almost back.
General manager Sandy Alderson and the lovably feisty Collins would never fully acknowledge that relying from now to September on a starting rotation of Dickey, Jon Niese, Chris Young, 41-year-old Miguel Batista and a call-up or two to be named has them hiding their eyes, too. Batista was so bad Saturday, lasting only three innings, that he might be the one who goes to open a roster spot.
Harvey is likely to start Thursday in Arizona rather than Wednesday opposite Washington sensation Stephen Strasburg. And after that, we'll see.
But Alderson gave zero indication Saturday that the romantic notion of rewarding the grinders in his clubhouse for their terrific first half by making some splashy move for a pitcher who might keep them in the wild-card chase now is even on his radar.
Again and again, he seemed intent on sticking to his overarching, long-term plan for the franchise. And he's right.
Referring to Santana's absence on top of the likelihood that Gee is out for the year, Alderson said, "This in and of itself doesn't change our approach. I think the results on the field will dictate that."
He even challenged the characterization of the Mets as "buyers" in the trade market, stessing, "The presumption here is that we were buyers," but "the next seven, eight, 10 games will be important for us" to determine that.
Alderson also ruled out rushing any of his minor league pitchers. He wasn't asked directly about hurrying Double-A standout Zack Wheeler, but what he said would hold true for Wheeler, too: "If we were to do something like that -- and I'm not saying we will -- we would look at it in terms of his development as opposed to what our needs are. Now, the need itself may give rise to the opportunity. But it needs to fit with his development program."
All that is unlikely to make long-suffering Mets fans happy, given the other second-half fades their team has had in the past five years.
Saturday's loss dropped the Mets to 47-47, the first time they've slumped to .500 since May 4. The Mets went into the All-Star Game just a half-game out of the last wild-card spot but began Saturday 4 1/2 games off the pace. And that was before they endured the added insult of seeing Chris Capuano, whom they didn't re-sign after last season, beat them with eight strong innings.
Capuano's 10-5 record and 2.81 ERA would sure look great right now in the Mets' threadbare rotation, but never mind.
Looking for help from within in the next week or so, and waiting for Santana -- again -- is still the right thing for this Mets team to do.