Commentary

Santana's mere presence giving the Mets confidence

Originally Published: February 17, 2008
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Think the Mets aren't feeling invincible these days? After hanging around Johan Santana for less than a week, the talk in the clubhouse has already turned bold. Even Carlos Beltran, one of the most mild-mannered players on the roster, is saying it: The Mets will avenge last September's collapse to the Phillies.

"With [Santana], I have no doubt we're going to win our division. I have no doubt about that," said Beltran on Saturday. "So, this year, tell Jimmy Rollins we are the team to beat."

The tweaking of the Phillies was deliberate, but boasting about Santana is the Mets' way of twisting the knife with the Yankees, too. While Hank Steinbrenner now admits he regrets missing out on Santana -- allowing himself to be talked out of a trade with the Twins by his brother Hal and general manager Brian Cashman -- the Mets are proud to say they acted quickly and decisively to get the game's best pitcher.

"The Johan Santanas of the world come around only once," is what Mets GM Omar Minaya says. Every day, it seems, the Mets find a new reason to validate their decision to make Santana the richest pitcher in baseball history.

First, he gives them the ace they've been missing since Pedro Martinez was injured in 2006. Second, Santana creates a wider berth for Oliver Perez and John Maine, allowing them to match up with the lower rungs of opponents' rotations. And finally, most significantly, Santana will make life simpler for the Mets' bullpen, a near-guarantee to get into the eighth inning on a regular basis.

[+] EnlargeJohan Santana
AP Photo/Nati HarnikHow many wins will the Mets get from Pedro Martinez (left) and their $137.5M man, Johan Santana?
No pitcher has thrown more innings since 2004, so when Santana says, "I'm here to do my job," he means giving the Mets back their sense of entitlement. There's work to be done in this area, though, since the Mets are 0-for-2 in late-season pressure situations since 2006.

They failed in Game 7 of the 2006 NL Championship Series against the Cardinals, and that '07 collapse was historically unique. No team had ever given up a seven-game lead with 17 to go. To make matters worse, the Mets have lost their last eight games to the Phillies, which is largely why the Mets are writing Santana such a big check.

He was lured to Shea Stadium precisely because the Mets, star-studded and rich, nevertheless lack a killer instinct. The blame goes up and down the organization, but manager Willie Randolph admits he should've been tougher on his players as the lead was shrinking.

"There's some things that I should have touched on just to remind them what it's like if I can draw back on my experience," said Randolph the other day. "But sometimes that's just talk, because if they're not feeling it, then it doesn't matter, know what I mean?

"For instance, like going down the stretch against Philadelphia or whatever, my attitude might have been, 'I want to knock someone's head off on the other side.' If my guys, if that's not their mentality, then it doesn't matter what I feel. I'm not playing."

Randolph's future with the Mets hangs in the balance during '08, as ownership tries to determine whether he's capable of getting the most out of his players. Randolph, after all, is supposed to be a leader of men, more so than a tactician. If he can't win with Santana on board, he'll have no chance of returning for '09.

But it's just as possible that Santana and a healthy Martinez will give the Mets breathing room all season. That's the best-case scenario. If so, the Mets won't have to obsess any further about Jose Reyes' moodiness or Carlos Delgado's diminishing bat speed.

All those issues will be rendered moot assuming Santana wins 22 or so games, which he just might. That's called pressure, but if Santana is feeling burdened, he's hiding it well under layers of psychological flesh.

Santana has looked cool and composed in the first few days of camp, throwing a 30-pitch bullpen session to new battery mate Brian Schneider on Saturday. All the hints of greatness were there: The arm speed, the pure illusion of his changeup and the perfect delivery, the mechanics to die for.

Schneider said, "Everything Johan threw was down." That's been the calling card all along. He said he learned an important lesson from Martinez years ago, that, "You don't have to be 6-5 to dominate."

For Santana, the recipe is based upon the gulf between his 93 mph fastball and 80 mph change. Lucky for him, he's been blessed with the baseball gene that allows him to make both pitches look identical out of his hand.

Yet, there was some leftover concern about Santana's numbers in his final seven starts with the Twins in 2007, when he allowed 26 runs and nine home runs in 44 innings.

Some scouts say Santana lost 2-3 mph off his fastball, possibly because of a split fingernail on his middle left finger. Maybe it was the accumulation of all those innings (912 and 1/3) in the last four seasons. Or maybe Santana was worn out by the Twins themselves, who he said, "just weren't making the plays" after falling out of the race.

Whatever the reason, Santana arrives in New York with at least one small blemish, having allowed a career-high 33 home runs last year. But the Mets aren't sweating his past, not when the future looks so bright. Just ask them.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE