Johan Santana returns to ace form, to Terry Collins' relief

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Johan Santana. (wikipedia.org)
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No matter how well it turned out, New York Mets manager Terry Collins knew the wisdom of his decision to allow Johan Santana to blow past his pitch count in pursuit of a no-hitter on June 1 would be revealed in two parts.

The first could not have gone better: Santana threw the first no-hitter in Mets history, registering a personal triumph and a catalytic event for fans of the team.

That he threw 134 pitches, more than he'd ever thrown in his career, and less than two years removed from shoulder surgery, meant that the other part of the decision would be how effective, and healthy, his subsequent starts would reveal him to be.

The first two went poorly. Then on Tuesday night, 18 days after the no-hitter, Santana delivered six shutout innings in a 5-0 victory over the Orioles. 

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Santana and pitching coach Dan Warthen had sought to make some adjustments, and Santana even went back and watched his no-hit start in search of answers.

"He had much better stuff today," Collins told the assembled reporters after the game Tuesday night. "He had life to his fastball, his breaking ball had much better depth to it. Changeup's always been a good pitch, but much better command. I thought what they did in their session the other day helped him out."

Santana smiled self-consciously when asked about his video session with the no-hitter. A pitcher thrives on routine, but nothing has been quite so routine as Santana standing in front of his locker, a blue and orange number eight emblazoned on his shirt front in honor of Gary Carter, reassuring reporters that he feels just fine.

"I just tried to stay with my mechanics," Santana said, implicitly denying that watching the no-hitter had an emotional component to it. "One of the things I try to do, when I'm pitching, is to establish my fastball inside. That's what I was trying to do tonight. When I do that, my changeup, everything's better."

The results bear that out. Most of the hits Santana allowed on Tuesday night came off of his fastball; four of his five strikeouts came on the changeup. He also used the slower, dipping pitch as his out pitch to end a pair of jams he encountered during his start.

For the Mets as a whole, the last two nights felt like the laying down of markers. Now just three games out of first place, currently in possession of the final wildcard playoff spot, the Mets demonstrated how they planned to contend: with some timely hits, sure, but mostly on the backs of their two aces, R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana.

Dickey's last seven starts have made it impossible to say exactly who is the ace. But it's a distinction that ultimately doesn't matter much. Dickey cannot lead the Mets to October alone. The Mets are 12-2 in Dickey starts, 25-30 in all other starts. They'll need Santana to be Santana if they are to overcome the twin deficiencies of their defense and bullpen.

His start against the Orioles was a very good sign.

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