NEW YORK -- It went 13 innings, but in the end it was still all about the beginning.
In the first, Santana twice retired maybe the greatest hitter of this generation, Albert Pujols, but he couldn't fool a pitcher to halt the damage. Between Pujols making the second and third outs, the Cardinals scored all six of their runs, two of which came on a single from St. Louis starter Jaime Garcia. Santana gave up eight hits in the inning.
"I've never had an inning like that before," Santana said.
When Santana finally left -- after gamely saving the bullpen by lasting into the sixth -- he had allowed seven runs and a career-worst 13 hits in 5 2/3 innings.
His teammates, who have so often let him down this season with their lack of run support, took him off the hook for the loss by tying the score 7-7 in the eighth.
"We did a great job," Carlos Beltran said of the comeback, despite the loss.
But in the 13th, Mets manager Jerry Manuel chose to pitch to Pujols instead of walking him, which would have loaded the bases, and going after Matt Holliday. Pujols finished off Pedro Feliciano and the Mets with an RBI single.
"We were playing with fire and we got burned," Manuel said.
"Fire" may not be the word Manuel or anyone around the Mets' staff wants to say too loud in a crowded room of reporters. After Tuesday's reprise, despair has returned to Citi Field, with R.A. Dickey set to try to avoid the Mets slip-sliding to .500 on Thursday.
For Santana, Wednesday night was positively shocking considering he had been as hot as the weather this month. He had allowed one or fewer runs while pitching seven innings in each of his previous five starts. In his last 44 innings, he had allowed just eight runs. He entered with a 2.79 ERA and exited with a 3.11 ERA.
The Mets have wasted many of Santana's quality starts. Nearly half the times that Santana has taken the mound this season, his teammates have done little or nothing. In 10 of his 22 starts, the Mets have scored two or fewer runs for him.
But Wednesday's debacle was mostly on Santana.
It all started so innocently. After Felipe Lopez knocked the first pitch of the game for a single, Jon Jay and Pujols went down, so it seemed like a normal Santana first. And then there were more hits than on AngelinaJolie.com.
Holliday crushed a two-run homer. Yadier Molina smacked a single. Colby Rasmus nailed a double. After Santana intentionally walked the .201-hitting Brendan Ryan to get to Garcia, it looked as if Santana would be able to escape with giving up the two runs and nothing else.
Garcia, a .188 hitter, sent a grounder up the middle. It was hit relatively hard but slow enough that Jose Reyes could make a diving attempt at it. Reyes couldn't make the play and Garcia had two RBIs.
No. 9 hitter Skip Schumaker hit a grounder that David Wright had a play on, but Wright double-clutched and threw late to first. After Schumaker's RBI, Lopez hit a run-scoring single. Then Jay hit the first pitch for a single. It didn't score a run but it put an exclamation mark on the unusual inning.
Jay became the fourth batter in the inning to turn a first pitch from Santana into a hit. Entering Wednesday, Santana had owned batters on the first pitch. His .164 batting average on the first pitch was the lowest in the National League, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Even though Wednesday night was especially bad, Santana has suddenly been having trouble in the first inning. From 2000-09, he had allowed four-plus runs in the first inning just three times. He's done it three times this season.
Still, the Mets nearly saved Santana. They chipped away with two runs in the first and another in the sixth to put themselves in position to come back.
But the hole was too great to overcome. On this night, Santana let down his team.
It went 13 innings, but it was all about the first one.