Johan Santana Throws First Mets No-Hitter: What it means to an aching fanbase

AP

When the Mets acquired two-time Cy Young award winner Johan Santana on Feb. 3, 2008, it was much more than a trade. It was much more than a six-year, $138 million contract. The franchise was rebounding from the most embarrassing collapse in history to date, and whether it was something on the field or not, it was evident that there was a missing piece to the puzzle. When the Mets acquired two-time Cy Young award winner Johan Santana on February 3rd, 2008, it was more than anything you could see on a baseball diamond. It brought to fans something they’d been longing for since their last title season 22 years prior: the belief that the Mets would be World Series champions once again.

That belief is a virtue that has often eluded the Mets and their fans throughout the franchise’s 50-year history. With the exception of their two banner-raising seasons, 43 and 26 years ago, respectively, the ballclub from Queens has been hamstrung by stretches of lengthy rebuilds, injuries, eyebrow-raising front office decisions, and flat-out bad luck. Although these all seem like traits that would steer anyone in their right mind away from Flushing, Mets fans have grown to embrace and inexplicably love their club’s struggles. It’s what makes the Mets, well, the Mets, and what bonds all Mets fans into one great, heartbreak-loving baseball family.

Of course, all the Mets’ lows are what make experiencing success unlike anything else in baseball. You could look back as far as the Miracle Mets of ’69, who came out of the cellar of the National League to win 100 games and shock the world on their way to a championship in the franchise’s seventh season. Maybe Mookie Wilson’s dribbler that you might have heard about once or twice. Mike Piazza’s home run on Sep. 21, 2001 to hand the Mets a victory in their first game since the 9/11 terrorist attacks swayed every American to the blue and orange side of baseball fandom for a night. Or, you could just think back to game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, when Endy Chavez lept and reached over Shea’s blue eight-foot wall to make the greatest catch in the history of the team, robbing Scott Rolen of a home run that would’ve essentially ended the team’s season. Shea Stadium rocked. Literally, the old place used to sway, horrifically but triumphantly, from side to side as fans would go bonkers for the blue and orange. In moments like these, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an atmosphere more amazing than where the Mets call home.

Through all the historic moments brought to us by the Metsies, there’s always been one slight imperfection. It was simply one of the sports oddities that nobody could logically explain. It’s not that the Mets have been devoid of stellar pitching — studs such as Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Jon Matlack, Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Tom Glavine, and Pedro Martinez, just to name a few, have all called Queens home for at least a few seasons. They’d tried, and they’d came close, but all had ultimately failed. The Mets had never thrown a no-hitter.

Many men came close. Excruciatingly close. The franchise’s historic armory has hurled a whopping total of 35 one-hitters. Some notables in that batch of gems that history wouldn’t so much as blink an eye at are the three times that Tom Seaver carried a no-hitter into the 9th inning, only to allow base hits in the final frame of each. Seaver compiled five total one-hitters in his 12 seasons in New York. Long-time mediocre Met Steve Trachsel is second on the list with two one-hit complete game shutouts, tied with Cone, Matlack, and Gary Gentry. Most recently, it was John Maine who waited until the eighth inning with two retired to allow his first hit of the afternoon, in the penultimate game of Shea Stadium’s penultimate season.

The Mets won that second-to-last game of 2007. Unfortunately, it was their last victory of that season. Tom Glavine laid an egg in the season’s final game that would have clinched a postseason berth with a victory. Instead, the Mets fell behind Florida 7-0 in the first inning, and never made up that ground — resulting in the most epic collapse baseball had seen. (Glavine was admittedly “not devastated” about the performance — his last as a Met.)

This brings us back to Johan Santana.

Fast forward one calendar year to Sep. 27, 2008. It was Santana’s very own performance to conclude his inaugural Metropolitan campaign. Interim manager Jerry Manuel, who took over that June after Willie Randolph’s canning, called upon his ace on just three days rest to save the Mets’ season. A loss would eliminate the team from playoff contention with just one game remaining.

It wasn’t a no-hit bid (Santana allowed a single in the first inning), but he delivered in the biggest way possible. The Marlins failed to score a run in Santana’s complete game victory — one of the franchise’s most memorable pitching performances. Shea Stadium rocked. In a season that began with championship hopes, Santana put his team in a position to ride his momentum, and begin a playoff run in which he’d lead the charge. All they would need is one more victory the next day at Shea.

That victory never came.

Shea Stadium closed its doors for good that next day, lacking the third title many fans anticipated it would go out with that 2008 season. Hopes were again high for the 2009 season, but injuries got the best of the club that Sports Illustrated predicted would win it all. The 2009 Mets won 70 games, 23 behind the division-leading Phillies.

By the middle of 2010, Johan Santana was in the middle years of his contract, and had no playoff appearances to show for it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, on Sep. 11, 2010 it was announced that he would need surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his throwing shoulder, the same surgery that many pitchers have failed to fully recover from.

His return date was initially set for May 2011. That later got pushed back to June, then August, and, as any Mets fan could’ve predicted, Santana never threw a pitch in the 2011 season. The man that once embodied optimism and promise was beginning to look more and more like that $138 million price tag.

At the start of his fifth season in New York, many expected Santana to fail. Mets fans have watched their team sink from World Series contenders in 2008, to salary-slashing bottom-dwellers in 2011. There was room for optimism to start off the year. Many even doubted Santana would return for the start of the season.

He did return, however, and through the first two months of the season, looked just as sharp as he did as a 29-year-old New York neophyte. Now 33, and that fastball three or four miles-per-hour slower due to a combination of medical procedure and age, Johan Santana is still a warrior. The kind of warrior that loves adversity. The kind of warrior that knows his team doesn’t stand a chance without him.

Santana took the mound Friday night on the heels of a complete game shutout vs. San Diego — a start most reminiscent of the Johan Santana of old. It was a night that was initially noteworthy as Carlos Beltran’s return to New York. Johan soon stole the show.

By the start of the sixth inning, all 27,069 fans in attendance new exactly what the circumstances were. But with Santana at around 90 pitches, a dream scenario seemed unlikely. Carlos Beltran led off the sixth and smoked a line drive that appeared to be fair down the left field line. Third base umpire Adrian Johnson ruled it foul, and Beltran was eventually retired.

Sure enough, Santana turned his outing into a serious bid. With one out in the seventh inning, the ball found the biggest Mets fan on the field. Mets left fielder and Whitestone native Mike Baxter grew up a descendant of that great, heartbreak-embracing Mets fan ancestry. He understood better than anybody on the field what a no-hitter would mean to the team and its fans. Baxter sprinted to the blue outfield fence, threw his glove in the air and snagged a Yadier Molina liner that was sure to be extra bases. Baxter’s momentum slammed him into that left field wall, and he lay still for several moments before players and training staff surrounded him. He walked off the field holding his arm, but to a standing ovation. Chants of “BAX-TER, BAX-TER.” Mike Baxter literally ran through a wall for the Mets, and the rest was up to Johan.

With the help of some soft line drives that stayed in the air just long enough, along with some devastating change-ups, Santana found himself on the mound in the ninth inning without having allowed a hit. The heart of St. Louis’ lineup was due up. Miraculously, he induced to lineouts to the shallow outfield to begin the inning. The previous World Series’ hero David Freese would be the batter. Santana fell behind him in the count 3-0 before working back to a full count on his 133rd pitch (a new career high). Here’s Howie Rose to bring you closer than any other description ever could:

Citi Field could have been mistaken for Shea Stadium. It remained stationary, however the decibel level reached new Citi Field heights. Mets fans finally had a reason to go Shea Stadium-nuts in their new home, and they didn’t disappoint. The home field, at long last, felt like home.

There was a blown call that the Mets benefited from, but the baseball gods wouldn’t have it any other way. Try naming a single game in the sport’s history where the umpiring was perfect. Baseball is a game that, for better or worse, is largely reliant on the human element. Tape of every no-hitter could be picked apart, and there’d surely be questionable ball and strike calls that would extend at-bats to possibly change history. That’s just the way baseball has always been, and forever will be.

Santana’s feat is one of the instances in sports that can be celebrated and appreciated by everybody, everywhere. Everyone in the Mets family wholly  understood the importance of Santana’s feat, and celebrated accordingly — whether it be a 90-year-old fan since ’62, a 10-year-old just getting to know the game of baseball, an 18-year-old blogger trying to make sense of the whole thing, or a 27-year-old left fielder living every Queens kid’s dream.

It’d be a safe assumption to declare the Mets had somebody on their side Friday night. Take a look at the box score. The Mets had eight runs on eight hits. Johan had eight Ks. He threw 134 pitches (1 + 3 + 4 = 8). All in the year dedicated to The Kid (2012. 20 – 12 = 8).

Mets fans now have their long-coveted no-hitter, and it’s delightfully clear there’s something amazin’ brewing at Citi Field this year. Following Friday’s win, New York is at their high-water mark, six games over .500, and one game off the division-leading Nationals’ pace. One last note: The Miracle Mets were also 29-23 through their first 52 games of the 1969 season, before going on to shock the world by finishing at 100-62, and bringing a World Series crown to Flushing, Queens.

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