Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 3, 2012

Santana’s No-No Ends The Longest Wait

If there is a dictionary in which there is a photograph next to the definition of “long-suffering,” surely that photo is of a diehard fan wearing a New York Mets cap. It’s not that the team has always been bad. The Mets have been to the World Series four times, more than thirteen other franchises. In 1969 a team that had never finished higher than ninth in a ten-team league through their first seven seasons amazingly won 100 games in the regular season and went on to become the first expansion club to win the Series in their eighth. Seventeen years later Mookie Wilson drove a stake through the heart of Red Sox Nation when his grounder to first in the 10th inning of Game 6 rolled between Bill Buckner’s legs; two nights later the Mets won their second championship. Three teams have won the Series only once, and eight franchises have never won it at all; the Mariners and Nationals/Expos have never even been to the Fall Classic.

But the occasional joy that the franchise in Queens has brought to its fans in some ways serves only to throw the many disappointments and frequent futility into sharper relief. In their inaugural season the Mets lost 120 times, still the single-season record in the game’s modern era. Four years later, in the 1966 Major League Draft, team executives opted to pass on an outfielder named Reggie Jackson; instead using the first overall pick to select Steve Chilcott. Jackson is in the Hall of Fame. Chilcott never made it to the major leagues.

More recently the Mets went through a period of ending seasons in calamitous fashion. In the 2006 NLCS, New York and St. Louis battled through a taut Game 7, the score tied at 1-1 until the top of the 9th. That’s when the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina connected for a two-run homer to give St. Louis the lead. Down to their final three outs, the Mets refused to go quietly, loading the bases with two outs for slugger Carlos Beltran. But to the everlasting anguish of the team’s fans, Beltran looked at a called third strike, ending the team’s season with his bat on his shoulder.

New York hasn’t made it back to the post-season since, though by rights they should have in both of the next two years. In 2007 they led the NL East by 7 games with just 17 to play. But they proceeded to implode, and needed a win on the regular season’s final day to force a one-game playoff with Philadelphia. On that Sunday at Shea Stadium, Tom Glavine surrendered seven runs in the first inning in his final appearance in a Mets uniform. One year later they had a more modest lead of 3 ½ games with 17 remaining. Once again a losing record down the stretch allowed the Phillies to pass them for the Division crown.

Since moving to Citi Field in 2009 the team hasn’t posted a winning record, and with attendance down and the owners until very recently ensnared in the Bernie Madoff scandal, management has been financially hamstrung. Fans had understandably low expectations at the start of this season. Yet throughout their first half-century the Mets could be relied upon to serve up the improbable, and as they opened a home series against the Cardinals on Friday night they were five games over .500 and just two back of the Division-leading Nationals.

If the Mets position in the standings as just over 27,000 fans made their way into Citi Field was unlikely, what those fans witnessed was far more so. From the day the first Mets nine took the field back in 1962 until Friday, New York had played 8,019 regular season games. Not once in all of those games had Mets fans been able to cheer on through the mounting drama as one of their pitchers hurled a no-hitter. Across the majors 131 no-hitters were thrown in that time, with every other team save the San Diego Padres having at least one; but the Padres franchise is seven years younger than the Mets. Pitchers for the Angels, Astros, and Dodgers each recorded a total of ten no-hitters over that half-century.

Tom Seaver, the Mets greatest pitcher, came ever so close three times only to have a no-hit bid broken up late in a game. Then after being traded to Cincinnati Seaver got his no-hitter in 1978, part of a pattern that surely has to gnaw at the psyches of Mets fans. In addition to Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden, and David Cone all threw no-hitters after leaving the team. Ryan of course threw seven of them, and Gooden and Cone had the temerity to throw theirs for the Mets’ Gotham rivals who play on the other end of the Triborough Bridge. Just six weeks ago Philip Humber added himself to this list by throwing a perfect game for the Chicago White Sox. Humber had originally been drafted by and got his first big league appearance and first big league start with the Mets.

Four years ago Humber was part of a package of prospects that New York sent to Minnesota in exchange for Johan Santana. At the time the trade was hailed in New York. Santana was not yet 29 and had already won two Cy Young Awards for the Twins. In his first season in Queens he went 16-7 and deserved better, as the Mets bullpen recorded seven blown saves in games Santana started. But in 2009 despite a solid ERA his record was just 13-9, and he missed the last month of the season after surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. The next year was no better, again in part due to a lack of run support. Then in September 2010 he underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule, and was lost to the team for all of 2011.

So it was a Johan Santana who was still working his way back who took the mound Friday night. Before the game manager Terry Collins told Santana that he would be limited to 115 pitches, seven more than his previous high this season. But then the zeroes started going up on the scoreboard. Santana issued back to back walks in the 2nd, and on the night would walk five, but still there were no hits.

Like many no-hitters, this one turned on a bit of luck and some sparkling defense. In the 6th Beltran, the former Met now playing for the Cardinals ripped a drive down the left field line. Television replays showed it kicking up a puff of chalk as it nicked the edge of the foul line, making it a fair ball and a likely double; but third base umpire Adrian Johnson signaled foul, and the line of zeroes on the scoreboard grew longer. In the 7th Yadier Molina sent a long fly ball over the head of left fielder Mike Baxter, but running at full speed Baxter snared the ball just before crashing into the outfield wall. Baxter stayed on the ground for a few minutes before leaving the game.

With two outs in the 8th Santana walked Rafael Furcal and manager Collins came to the mound. Santana had thrown 118 pitches. Collins later said that letting his pitcher continue “went against just about everything I stand for,” but he couldn’t bring himself to ask for the ball. In truth Santana likely wouldn’t have given it to him, and the Mets infielders gathered on the mound would have probably told Collins to get back to the dugout.

Santana threw sixteen more pitches, four to finish the 8th and twelve to record three outs in the 9th. When David Freese swung and missed at Santana’s 134th pitch, an interminable wait for Mets fans everywhere came to a joyous end. In the franchise’s 51st year and 8,020th game, the boys from Queens had a no-hitter. Of course, the next day the team announced that left fielder Baxter suffered a displaced collarbone when he collided with the wall and will likely miss six weeks, and that reliever Ramon Ramirez strained a hamstring running in from the bullpen to celebrate and will also go on the disabled list. After all, these are still the Mets.

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