Johan Santana: Proving Doubters Wrong Since 2000

Sunday June 10th, 2012

Robert Whitmer (Baseball Writer):  

            Pregame:  He walks in slowly and sits in front of his locker while listening to the banter in the New York Metropolitans clubhouse between the other players.  A couple of players pat him on the shoulder and offer their “good lucks” and “go get ems” as he methodically puts his jersey around his shoulders and buttons it up; his half sleeved shirt showing slightly under the shorter sleeves of his #57 Mets jersey.  He grabs his glove, stops at the bathroom, and heads to onto the soft grass at Citi Field.  He saunters out to the home bullpen to begin his warm-up routine as he prepares to take to the bump against the defending world champions.  His mind is sharp.  He sends up a quick prayer that his changeup will be the same.  As the tosses begin to loosen up his arm, his mind drifts back to the year 2000 when he did this for the first time at the major league level.

            2000 – 2003:  Man these were a rough years.  I know one thing.  I really didn’t like coming out of the bullpen.  I’m meant to be a starter, not a reliever.  Oh and another thing.  What’s up with that minor league stint?  Sent down to perfect my changeup, bah!  I mean it helped and all, but I don’t want to be in the minors forever and sometimes I wonder if I will ever stick in this league.  Good thing it was only two months down there.  All I need is a chance to show them that I can be a quality starter and they will see; everyone will see! 

            Johan got just what he wanted in 2003.  He was transitioned 100% from reliever to starter and never looked back.  After four months of the season in the bullpen he was made a starter and recorded a win in his last eight starts of the season, helping the twins into the playoffs.  He ended the season with a 12-3 record, 3.07 ERA and tallied 169 strikeouts while walking only 48.  He showed them exactly what he could do and the front office liked it.  So much so that it earned him the right to start the ALDS against the eventual American League champion Yankees.  So the legend of the Johan begins.

            First pitch:  The national anthem is over, the ceremonial first pitch has been thrown and “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas comes over the speakers.  Everyone knows what time it is now.  Santana comes running out of the dugout surrounded by his team and takes the mound.  He tosses his final warm up pitches, all fastballs, to not show his A+ pitch; just like a poker player who puts up his best face even though, through the river, he is sitting on three aces.  He finishes up his routine by walking to the back of the mound and handles the rosin bag a little bit.  First three batters are Furcal, Beltran, and Holiday.  Fly to center, strikeout, Fly to right.  Inning over and he trots back to the mound.  Second inning he faces five, gives up two consecutive walks then strikes out the last two batters.  Third inning the batters go in order with a ground out, fly out, and line out.  Fourth inning is more of the same.  Leadoff walk followed by three pop-ups.  He heads back to the dugout thinking to himself that if he keeps pitching like this he could be considered for the Cy Young award.  Wait, he’s won some of those before, and his mind wanders back as he sits on the pine while his hitters put some runs up on the board.

            2004 – 2006:  Man I was a beast during these years.  My two Cy Young awards.  I really had the hitters’ numbers.  It helped having a strong team around me, but I made my pitches when I needed to. 

            Making pitches when he needed to is exactly what he did and he was rewarded for it.  In 2004 he won his first Cy Young award as well as placing sixth in the MVP race.  He led the league with a 2.61 ERA and struck out 265 while going 20-6 and becoming the ace on the team and putting fear into the hearts of batters across the AL.  In 2005 it was more of the same.  16-7 with 2.87 ERA and 238 strikeouts while getting the All-Star nod and placing third in Cy Young Balloting.  2006 was an even better year for Santana.  He won the pitching Triple Crown by racking up 19 wins, 2.77 ERA and 245 strikeouts.  This is the third consecutive year he led the league in strikeouts.  He again got to the all-star game and won his second Cy Young award placing seventh in the MVP voting.  He was dominating.  With a better team, he probably could have won 24 or 25 games those seasons.

            Middle Innings: I’ve heard it said that the middle innings will make or break your success as a pitcher.  The hitters have seen your stuff at least once if not twice.  You have to step up your game in order to make it through.  Santana trots out to begin the fifth inning knowing that he is in control.  He’s a Cy Young winner.  He lives for these innings.  He is Mr. Middle Innings.  Fifth inning gets under way and ends in a hurry.  Walk, strikeout, strikeout, liner to left.  Boom!  Done!  What is hard about these middle innings?  Sixth inning is more dominance with a groundout, strikeout, and foul out to first.  Seventh inning continues in the same fashion with a pop out, line out, and groundout.  He shrugs his shoulders as he comes off the field and finds himself sitting alone on the bench.  Nobody is near him.  He smells his armpits to see if he stinks, or maybe it’s his breath.  He looks up at the scoreboard and sees all the zeros.  Realizing that it’s not his armpits, but that he has a no-hitter through seven innings, he understands why nobody is by him.  Baseball players are very superstitious and don’t want to talk to him for fear of getting him off of his game.  Seven….  Seven…  that number rings in his head, and he goes back to 2007.  The off-year. 

            2007 – 2010:  I’m sure that 99% of pitchers would take 15-13 with a 3.33 ERA and 235 strikeouts as an off-year.  Those were his numbers in 2007.  He was the same pitcher that he had been but didn’t receive the backup he would have wanted.  Much like corporate America, you have those guys who sit up in the stuffy office and only look at the numbers that appear on a sheet of paper and not at the circumstances that caused those results.  Santana led the league in home runs allowed, but also had a game where he struck out 17 and only allowed two hits.  At the end of 2007 the Twins struck while the iron was hot and shipped Santana to the Mets for Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber, Deolis Guerra, and Kevin Mulvey.  2008 he was back to form with 206 strikeouts and a 2.53 ERA.  He tossed three complete games, including the game following a 14-inning marathon where the Mets used the entire bullpen, along with two shutouts.  At the end of the year he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus that he had been pitching with for the last month of the year.  In 2009 Johan was named as one of the 50 greatest current players by a panel of 100 hall of fame players, but again his season was shut down early with injury.  Then there was 2010.  He had ups and downs this year but again had to be shut down due to injury. 

            The 8th and 9th innings:  This is rarified air for most pitchers in today’s game.  With bullpens being a key component of most teams roster, pitchers don’t normally pitch past the seventh inning, unless that is you are Johan Santana and you are six outs away from the first no-hitter in Mets history.  Not only will the team not bother you, but the manager won’t come out to talk to you either.  109 pitches thrown by Santana to start the eighth and looks as crisp as ever, and the batters look as puzzled as ever.  The inning goes down in the books as a fly out, strike out, walk, lineout.  The crowd can sense it.  The Mets can feel it.  Citi Field is about to go ballistic, but nobody mentions it.  Again with the superstitions, because baseball players, fans, broadcasters, and managers think that even talking about no-hitters while one is being thrown will curse it.  Ninth inning now and Santana is up on the bump.  The first batter is Holiday.  He swings at the first pitch and lines it to center for an out, one away.  Next batter is Alan Craig.  5 pitches are thrown to him.  Ball, strike, ball, strike, lines out to right on a 2-2 count, Two away.  Next up is David Freese, the hero of the 2011 World Series for the Cardinals.  Pitch 1 is a ball, 2 is a ball, 3 is a ball.  If Santana walks him the no-hitter will still be intact, but why prolong things?  Pitch 4 is fouled off for strike one.  Pitch 5 is a swinging strike for a 3-2 count.  Pitch 6…

            2011:  This had to be a frustrating year for Santana.  Recovering from a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder takes time.  He missed the entire season trying to get his body right to pitch in 2012.  If there is one thing that rehab from injury teaches you is patience.  Patience in all sorts of situations is vital.  Making sure that you don’t rush yourself after having major surgery is one of those.  In 2011 Johan learned patience. 

The Final Act:  He was using the afore-mentioned patience in the ninth inning in 2012 with a 3-2 count with the man who won the World Series for his team the year before.  He takes his time.  Steps off the mound and makes sure that he has his head right.  Stepping back up there he is prepared, locked in and ready to go.  He winds up and throws the sixth pitch of the at-bat.  As the ball flies towards the plate it is one of those moments that, although happening very quickly, feel as though it is taking a lifetime.  As the ball approaches the plate Freese lifts his front leg in preparation to swing.  He drops it down again, rotates his hips, and swings his bat.  CONTACT!  Freese makes contact, but only with the air that the bat passes through.  Johan has done it.  The Mets finally have a no-hitter to their credit and the legend of the Johan adds yet another chapter to its pages. 

-Photo courtesy of larrybrownsports.com

***Today’s feature was prepared by Robert Whitmer, MLB reports Baseball Writer.  We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers.  You can also follow Robert on Twitter (@rwhitmer)***

 

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Posted on June 10, 2012, in MLB Player Profiles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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