Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fondly Remembered

In May of 2003, Mike Piazza went down with a groin injury, taking his thunderous bat out of the lineup with him. At the time, it struck me how little it actually mattered. The Mets weren't going anywhere particularly good, and Piazza at that point of the season had begun a descent into the latter portion of his career, no longer the elite offensive threat that we were used to him being. His injury, more or less, led to the chain reaction of useless veterans like Jeromy Burnitz and Roberto Alomar being traded away and younger players like Ty Wigginton and Jason Phillips emerged. No, they didn't really have any particular impact on the future of the Mets, but for that season, it was nice to see some new, fresh blood get a chance to prove themselves on a larger stage. It made a bad year interesting.

I bring this instance up because in light of the recent news of Johan Santana's re-injured shoulder and season-ending surgery, I couldn't help but have a similar reaction. A few years ago, this news might have been greeted as an unmitigated catastrophe. But what, realistically, could the most optimistic of Mets fans have forecast for Santana? Behind schedule on rehab, he wouldn't have been on the mound on Opening Day, and even then, what could have been expected? Since arriving in 2008, Santana has pitched out a full season but once, in that first year, and seen his season cut short or cut completely in every year since. It probably was not likely that he would have pitched all season, and even then, it would have likely been at a reduced rate of success than we were used to seeing, perhaps something out of latter-years Pedro Martinez, plus a period of time when he'd probably need extra rest. Best case scenario was that he would be healthy, have a solid first half of the season, and the Mets would trade him for a prospect, because give that 2013 was his walk year, it was almost certain that 2013 would be his last with the Mets.

Unfortunately, it won't even get that far. It was a real longshot for Santana to come back from the initial shoulder surgery, one which had never been performed on a Pitcher and required a painstaking amount of rehab, and even then, a return to effectiveness was not guaranteed. But when Santana came back and looked just as good as ever, I'm sure it was easy to forget just what he was trying to overcome. What he was able to accomplish in 2012 was nothing short of amazing, but just as he reached his peak—Throwing his No Hitter—the magic ran out just as quickly, leaving Santana at a career crossroads.

It's likely that we've seen the last of Johan in a Mets uniform, and that's a shame in and of itself. The Mets were never good enough around him to carry the team to the level we hoped. But in the process, Santana certainly provided a multitude of great moments and great memories that will far outweigh the negatives or the feeling of unfulfillment. He owns two of the greatest single-game pitching performances in Mets History. Even when he wasn't making history or saving the Mets asses, he was doing something interesting, and I always think of a pair of other games that get lost amidst those moments of higher prestige. One such game came in September of 2008, on a Sunday night against the Phillies. Sure, the show was stolen by Carlos Delgado, but it was Santana who gutted it out into the 8th inning against a murderous Philly lineup, trying to protect a lead from an even more frightening Mets bullpen. The second came in July of 2010, against the Reds. In addition to hitting his first career Home Run, Santana pitched a 3-hit shutout. In the 9th inning, Jason Bay dropped a routine fly ball, putting runners on 1st and 2nd with 1 out and the tying run at bat. Jerry Manuel came to the mound. Fans were screaming to leave him in the game. Manuel consulted with his ace, and I guess he liked what he heard, because he left Santana in the game. It took Santana all of 2 pitches to finish off the Reds.

Johan Santana took the mound and pitched with his heart and with his head every time out. He may not have a championship to certify his career, but everyone who ever saw him take the mound knows just how good he was. I'm glad we had our time together.

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