11:56 pm Jun. 1, 2012
June 1, 2012 was destined to be a notable date in New York Mets history even before Johan Santana threw the first of 134 pitches on his way to the Mets' first no-hitter.
It marked the return to New York of Carlos Beltran, the greatest center fielder in Mets history. That Beltran returned in the uniform of the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that denied the 2006 Mets a chance to win the franchise's third world championship, only heightened the tension. Citi Field was going to be overrun by the ghosts of the Mets' recent past.
Beltran very nearly undid Santana's feat in the sixth inning, hitting a laser down the third-base line past David Wright for what appeared to be the Cardinals' first hit. But third-base umpire Adrian Johnson called it foul, never mind the indentation of the chalk behind third base, indisputable proof. The no-hitter continued.
An inning later, Yadier Molina stepped to the plate with one out in the seventh. Molina means one thing to the rest of baseball, and another to Mets fans. To the rest of baseball, he is a reason not to try and steal second base, an astounding arm as weapon behind the plate. To Mets fans, he's the guy who homered to left against Aaron Heilman to give St. Louis the 2006 National League pennant.
Molina drove the ball to left field, where his home run had landed, and where Endy Chavez had made the most famous catch in Mets history other than the Tommie Agee catches that saved Game 3 of the 1969 World Series.
Racing after the ball was Mike Baxter, who served as a reminder, all at once, of the past few seasons, both by who he was and who he wasn't. Baxter, a boy from Queens, was the kind of inexpensive alternative the Mets never would have utilized in the Omar Minaya years, an underrated corner outfielder without a track record. And he most certainly wasn't Jason Bay, the expensive white-elephant left fielder who wouldn't have come close to catching the ball.
Baxter's grab, as he crushed his arm against the fence, would force him from the game. But the out retired Molina, and robbed St. Louis of their last, best chance at a hit.
Did Mets fans sense that history was with them at that point? Of course not. Endy's catch came in the seventh, in a game the Mets would lose. And Tom Seaver had carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning three times. Jerry Koosman once said of the Tom Seaver trade, "If the Mets could trade Tom Seaver, what value did the rest of us have?"
The same could be said of other would-be no-hitters. If Tom Terrific couldn't close the deal, what chance did John Maine have?
Maine had pitched a no-hitter into the eighth on the final Saturday of the 2007 season, eventually losing it on a winging bunt that traveled perhaps 40 feet, by a forgettable backup catcher named Paul Hoover. A day later, Tom Glavine gave up seven runs in the first, and the Mets' collapse was complete.
Santana himself authored a gem on the second-to-last day of the 2008 season, a two-hit shutout in which he threw 125 pitches, which was until tonight a career high. The following day, of course, came another humiliating season-ending defeat for the Mets.
In the postgame press conference tonight, manager Terry Collins repeatedly grew too choked up to finish his thoughts when the subject turned to Santana's workload. Few things have defined the New York Mets these past few disappointing years like the awful spectacle of Johan Santana's injury and agonizingly long recovery. Expectations were lowered; it was too much to expect to see anything, ever again, like the Johan Santana who starred for the Minnesota Twins.
Yet by the ninth inning, the fans, cheering raucously at every pitch, recognized that that's what they were seeing. Few had been around for the last of Seaver's no-hit bids that lasted into the ninth. Now, in a season in which their depleted team was fighting gamely just to stay relevant, they were watching a little bit of a miracle.
Matt Holliday flew out to Andres Torres, a 2012 Met. Allen Craig flew out to Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who hadn't even played in the major leagues until 2012.
Then David Freese came up.
Freese was considered an afterthought in baseball until his walkoff home run in Game 6 of last year's World Series. That's how he'll be remembered in St. Louis, and most everywhere else.
But now Mets fans will remember Freese, forever, for something else entirely: David Freese is the guy who struck out on a Johan Santana changeup to end the first no-hitter in New York Mets history.