Commentary

Santana gives Mets a real 'dominating' effort in opener

Originally Published: March 31, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- He's the perfect cure for the 6-month-old nightmare that won't go away.

He's a dose of amnesia for a team that's trying to perfect the art of forgetfulness.

He's the great Johan Santana. And when he walked to the mound Monday for the first Opening Day start of his life as a New York Met, he made the events of September 2007 feel about as irrelevant as the Peloponnesian War.

After all, who can think about a topic as ancient as the Greatest September Collapse of Modern Times when you have Cy Young doing his thing, huh?

[+] EnlargeJohan Santana
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesJohan Santana had eight strikeouts and pitched seven strong innings in the Mets' 7-2 win over the Marlins on Monday.
"Yeah, instead of having to answer 10 million questions about last year," laughed David Wright after Santana's Mets debut, "we've only had to answer 5 million.

But with every astonishing pitch that came out of Santana's hand Monday, those messy September headlines seemed to gravitate a little closer to the nearest recycling bin -- because when Johan Santana is pitching, his new teammates dream only of what's possible, not of what's behind them.

Santana whooshed through seven dazzling innings Monday in the Mets' 7-2 scrunching of the Marlins. If anyone else had been out there, you'd have called it dominating. But when it's Santana out there, this was just another day on the old Cy Young assembly line.

Three hits. Eight punchouts. A no-hitter for the first 3 2/3 innings of his Mets career. And about 11 swings by assorted Marlins in which the bat went thisaway and the ball went thataway -- about two feet thataway.

"If that's not dominating," said his new catcher, Brian Schneider, "it's going to be a great year."

The list of men who have started on Opening Day for the Mets includes Tom Seaver, Pedro Martinez, Dwight Gooden, Jerry Koosman, Mike Hampton and Al Leiter. We're guessing you've heard of them.

Who'd have believed that none of them ever pitched seven innings or more in an opener and allowed that few hits? (Previous record: four hits, in a '93 complete-game shutout by Gooden.)

"What's impressive to me," Wright said, "is just, with all the hype that surrounds him and being under the microscope, for him to go out there and be as calm as he was."

Maybe if Santana had been making his first start for the Cardinals or the Reds or the Indians on Monday, his teammates might not have noticed that calmness quite as vividly. But this isn't St. Louis or Cincinnati or Cleveland. Is it?

In New York, when a player like this arrives in a town like this, what's the first question we always ask? It's always the same: Can he handle it?

Will he get swallowed up, like Randy Johnson, by the questions and the second-guesses and the demand for nothing short of nonstop greatness?

Or will he be like Martinez and remember to inhale and exhale -- in that order? And will he not just do his thing but use the energy of a unique city as his own personal brand of premium unleaded?

If Monday was any indication, we might already know how Santana will answer those questions.

When he was asked whether he was nervous at all, even a little, Santana smiled, as if he couldn't tell the difference between Opening Day as a Met and Opening Day in the Metrodome.

"Nervous? Butterflies? Whatever you want to call it? It's part of the game," he said. "It's just about you being able to control it. It's not about letting the emotions take hold. It's how you control your emotions and how you control the game, and not letting any situation control you.

"That's just the way I am," he said. "I wasn't trying to do anything different, anything crazy. Just being myself."

And being yourself, when you're Johan Santana, is better theater than "The Phantom of the Opera."

He's 1-0 as a Met. But he's already 50 games over .500 (94-44) in his career -- giving him the No. 1 winning percentage (.681) of any active left-hander in the sport (among pitchers with that many decisions).

And this might have been the first time he had spun one of those seven-inning three-hitters as a Met. But it's the 25th time he has done that in his career -- in not much more than 4½ full seasons as a starting pitcher. No pitcher alive has cranked out more games like that since the middle of 2003.

So imagine what it's like when a pitcher like this heads for the mound on Opening Day -- and he's pitching for your team. You think maybe it's a slightly better feeling than being a Marlin, when your guy pitching Opening Day (Mark Hendrickson) got released in August?

"I've been thinking about this all spring," Wright said. "I know today it finally happened. But all spring, I was sitting there saying, 'I can't believe we'll be running this guy out there every fifth day.' "

You know, I know it was just Game 1. But let me tell you. I'll be glad to take 35 more of
those.

--Mets right fielder Ryan Church on Johan Santana

They know, of course, that all those days won't be quite as sweat-free as this day. They know Santana won't kick off every game the way he kicked off this one, with three hitless innings against a team with a starting rotation that won 24 games combined last season -- fewer than Santana has won by himself in just his past 48 starts.

But when the rest of the cast does what it did Monday -- throwing a six-run inning up there for Santana early -- life in uniform can't possibly get much more fun than this: Stuff a six-run lead in your ace's back pocket. Then lean back and enjoy the view.

"I was out there thinking, 'All these right-handed hitters, if they do put the bat on the ball, it's either going to wind up in the dugout or it's going to be a soft fly ball,'" said right fielder Ryan Church. "And 90 percent of the time, it's in the dugout because everything's off the end of the bat. … So you're out there thinking, 'No way this ball is coming out here.' And I'll tell you what. It's a good feeling."

If you're on the other end, though, standing 60 feet away from this man, it's not such a good feeling -- knowing those killer changeups are coming and still finding yourself missing them by three feet.

"I've taken some of those hacks," said Wright, a respectable 1-for-4 lifetime against Santana. "So I know how ugly they can be. I remember him almost breaking my thumbs one day in an All-Star Game. And I remember facing him last year in Shea Stadium. So I know firsthand how nasty he is. Will I miss that? Yeah, right. Not at all."

Santana launched exactly 100 pitches Monday. And precisely one of them got hit hard. That was the first hit he allowed all day -- a two-run homer by Josh Willingham off a hanging first-pitch changeup. (The other two hits were an infield single by Luis Gonzalez and a ground ball to left by Jorge Cantu.)

But even Willingham sounded like a grateful man afterward -- glad that he'd gotten one of those changeups as opposed to the standard dive-bomb special that starts out at the waist and ends up around the anklebone.

"The ball I hit, I was thinking changeup," Willingham said, "just because pitchers go to their best pitch with runners in scoring position, and that's by far his best pitch. But if it had been down, even if I'd been looking for it, I probably wouldn't have hit it."

Except for that one swing of the bat, it wasn't a pretty day for the team Willingham played for. Then again, maybe you'd expect that when you consider this eye-popping stat:

Dollars that will be paid to all 25 Marlins players this season: $21 million.

Dollars that will be paid to Santana this season: $19 million.

But just because this might have looked like a mismatch to most of America doesn't mean the Marlins weren't amped up for it themselves. And not merely because it was Opening Day, they were still undefeated and there were 38,308 actual paying customers in the stands (several of whom weren't even Mets fans).

No, sir. The fact that it was The Great Santana on the hill made this an event for the Marlins, too.

"I was looking forward to it -- for a while," Willingham chuckled. "I just envisioned it going a little better than it did today."

But the rest of the National League had better get used to it because there are going to be a lot of days like this when Santana is throwing the baseball.

"You know, I know it was just Game 1," Church said. "But let me tell you. I'll be glad to take 35 more of those."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE