The hardest part of Thanksgiving weekend? Getting back to real life the Monday after. So here’s a little something to make that return to the grind more bearable: game #8 in our Amazin’ Ten countdown.
#8 – The Real Johan Returns (May 26)
Mets fans were excited by Johan Santana’s return to the mound for Opening Day and thrilled by his five shutout innings on that April 5. Since then the former Cy Young king had put together a slew of good starts and not-so-good ones, entering his last start of May with a 1-2 record, 3.24 ERA, and 53 strikeouts in 50 innings. In a week’s time he would cement his place in New York history, but this afternoon against the San Diego Padres was the perfect appetizer.
After Santana’s scoreless 1st, the Met bats, which had often slept on Johan this season, decided Clayton Richard was the wakeup call they needed. Andres Torres led off with a single, then David Wright walked after Justin Turner’s fly out. A Richard balk moved both runners up a base, but it was a moot point when Scott Hairston made a souvenir out of a full-count fastball. Johan would’ve been happy with a 3-0 lead, but career minor leaguer Vinny Rottino caught some of Hairston’s home run fever and two batters later delivered the first homer of his major league career. 4-0 Good Guys.
Things got pretty uneventful for both sides after that. Mets fans weren’t complaining, though. Santana was methodically mowing down the Friars, retiring 16 straight from the 2nd to the 7th. With a pitch count under 90 after eight frames, there was no doubt Johan could go out to finish the game. But before he did, his team bought him the biggest insurance plan they could find courtesy of ex-Met Dale Thayer. Justin Turner singled and went to second on David Wright’s groundout. Then Ike Davis, still stuck on the interstate, gave fans a glimmer of hope with a long double to center, scoring Turner. After Lucas Duda’s fly out, Rottino singled and Ronny Cedeno walked, bringing up light-hitting (and that’s putting it nicely) Mike Nickeas, who was batting .160 with a .200 slugging average at this point. So naturally, he pounded Thayer’s 0-1 fastball for a grand slam, his second career home run and the home team’s third round-tripper of the afternoon (all reaching just the just-added Party City Deck, by the way). Really, you were expecting anything else? Not Nickeas’s teammates, apparently, as they were ready with a whipped cream pie for his face after the game.
The 9-0 cushion was more than enough for Santana, who only needed nine pitches to finish off a complete game shutout. He gave up a single to Blake Tekotte to start the 9th, but got Chris Denorfia to ground into a 4/4-3 double play. Then when Yonder Alonso hit a dribbling grounder down the first base line, it was Johan, who lost a W a month earlier when the bullpen couldn’t hold a sure thing, who extended his glove to meet him on the base path to cap the afternoon. Mets fans knew it already, but with a tip of the master’s cap and a glance at his final line (4 hits, 0 walks, 7 strikeouts on 96 pitches), it was all but certain: Johan Santana was back.
One week later Santana would toss his second consecutive complete-game shutout in more spectacular fashion (but we’ll get to that). Terry Collins gave him an extra day off after that 134-pitch effort, and fatigue must have factored in to his 10 earned runs over the next 10 innings. But for the rest of June, Johan was at his peak form: six shutout innings against Baltimore, six inning of two-run ball at Wrigley Field, and eight scoreless frames in Los Angeles to close out the magical month. It was in July when the wheels finally came off: three six-plus run shellings landed him on the DL and two more shellackings in August led to his shutdown with a little over a month to go.
You have to figure overall fatigue, not fatigue from staying out there for 134 pitches on June 1, was what derailed Santana after a great first half. I’m not surprised by that; after all, he did come off some major surgery the year before. But by the time 2013 starts he will have put some more distance between himself and the knife. Don’t write off Johan Santana just yet; if he’s still not his old self by April, he should at least be a valuable member of one of the strongest starting staffs in baseball.
May 26: the eighth most Amazin’ game of 2012. Keep it on Rising Apple for #7 later this week.
Amazin’ Ten of 2012
#8 – The Real Johan Returns (May 26)