Welcome back, Johan!

7/11/2010 - MLB Johan Santana New York Mets + more

NEW YORK -- It's good that this Johan Santana has showed up again.

That's because the New York Mets are going to need this Santana after the All-Star break.

Big time.

The only thing better than Santana's third straight outstanding start to close the first half of the season -- a 3-0 must-have victory over the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field on Sunday afternoon -- is what Mets fans can expect from the lefty when the season resumes Thursday.

When it comes to pitching in the second half, there's currently nobody better in baseball.

Santana (61-19, .763) has the highest career winning percentage after the All-Star break of any active major league pitcher with a minimum of 60 decisions. The Houston Astros' Roy Oswalt (70-22, .761) is second.

And if the Mets (48-40) want to win the National League East, or even the NL wild card, Santana is going to have to be that good.

The Mets -- in second place, four games behind the Braves in the NL East -- can no longer hope to get by without their ace pulling his share. And we're not just talking about pitching well -- we're talking about winning games.

In a huge game Sunday, Santana came up big against the Braves, who were hoping to sweep this three-game series and take a commanding six-game lead in the division. But Santana (7-5) was up to the task, allowing no runs on five hits in seven innings of work. He walked three and had five strikeouts. In his past three starts, Santana is 2-0 with a 0.39 ERA (one earned run in 23 innings).

Santana -- who had surgery to remove bone chips in his left elbow last season -- appears to be all the way back. It also seems as if he has stopped tipping off his changeup, too. "I'm feeling much better," Santana said. "I've made some improvements. I'm being more consistent with all my pitches.

"Today, I did it again."

Best of all, Santana won again, coming off a 3-0 complete-game victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

Sadly, there were way too many no-decisions for Santana earlier this season. Obviously, they weren't all his fault. But during one stretch, in six starts, Santana had one win and five no-decisions.

Simply put, the Mets need Santana to win.

The reason so many teams coveted Santana in his days with the Minnesota Twins was because he pitched well in the second half, and often helped the Twins rally and win American League Central titles down the stretch.

That's what the Mets are going to need this season if they want to finally make it to the postseason after so many failed attempts in recent seasons.

The Mets will not only have to catch the Braves, but fight off the Philadelphia Phillies. You just know the Phils will make a run at this division at some point.

"It's encouraging," said Mets manager Jerry Manuel about Santana's comeback. "We feel like we've gotten a player back that really found his way, but lately has seemed to have found his stuff.

"He was outstanding again today. So we look forward to watching him continue this performance for the rest of the year."

Santana's re-emergence is the reason you can't pooh-pooh the Mets' strong first half.

The Mets -- who were also able to compete without center fielder Carlos Beltran -- are in this pennant race for real. This is not a mirage. The Mets can make the postseason because they have pitching. It's that simple. In beating the Braves on Sunday, the Mets picked up their major league-leading 13th shutout of the season.

While other guys have stepped up, Santana is the key going forward. History tells you the best is yet to come.

Santana's seven wins at the All-Star break are tied for the fewest he has ever had at the end of the first half of a season since becoming a full-time starter in 2004. He had seven victories in 2004 at the break, but then went 13-0 in the second half. In 2005, he was 7-5 at the break and went 9-2 the rest of the way.

"I feel better as the season goes," said Santana when asked about his over-the-top second-half success. "And it's all about getting better.

"I challenge myself to getting better. I pitch every game like it's my last one. That's how I approach my game."

It's just what the Mets are going to need from here on out.

Rob Parker is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com.

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