My friend wasn’t even supposed to be at this particular New York Mets game.
For his birthday that year, all Patrick had asked of his girlfriend was tickets to a Mets game. Once the season got underway, she made good on her promise and got him the gift he’d asked for. Originally, the plan was to attend the game on June 2nd; as luck would have it, some sort of scheduling conflict got in the way, so June 1st it was.
They were seated as close to foul territory in the right-field bleachers as possible: mere inches from the foul pole, but with a clear line of sight all the way down the line. The stadium, then, was still relatively new, so the atmosphere was buzzing with Mets fans new and old exploring their new home for maybe the first or second time since its opening.
That season’s Opening Day starter, Johan Santana was scheduled to take on Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, who was making his return from Tommy John surgery the year before. Santana had also missed the entirety of the 2011 season after undergoing surgery of his own, having only pitched in the minors as he recovered from repairs to the anterior capsule in his throwing shoulder. June 1st would be only his 11th major-league start since the surgery.
The game started off relatively easily for Santana, as he struck out three in his first two innings of work. Wainwright held his own as well, holding the Mets bats scoreless until he allowed a flurry of hits to bring two men across the plate in the fourth.
While Wainwright started to struggle, Santana continued to cruise. Though he allowed four of his five walks in his first five innings of work, he held the Cardinals in check, not allowing a baserunner to even sniff scoring position.
Throughout the game, Patrick took his partner around the stadium, checking all the obligatory stops off the list: crossing the Shea Bridge, visiting the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, touring the Mets Hall of Fame…everything a first-time Citi Field visitor should do, the couple did, Patrick serving the role of an expert tour guide. An avid Mets fan, he had been to the stadium multiple times already.
The energy at the start of the afternoon was a familiar one, Mets fans buzzing with a mix of anticipation and apathy; the familiar cries of “I can’t believe I spent all this money just to watch the Mets lose” were scattered throughout the stands, as is expected throughout each months-long campaign.
By the end of the fifth inning, though, the energy started to shift.
His girlfriend made a comment about the scoreboard, which made Patrick take a closer look and understand what he was watching; despite the plethora of runners on base, Santana had yet to relinquish a hit.
Right on schedule, former Met Carlos Beltran ripped a ball down the third base line that, upon review, clearly clipped the chalk line which, by rule, should have rendered it fair.
However, third base umpire Adrian Johnson called it foul, holding his ground with an attitude so defiant that it led to an infuriated Cardinals third base coach José Oquendo’s ejection. As improbable as it was, the no-hitter stayed alive.
Patrick, like most Mets fans in attendance, could have sworn that the blown call was “the moment” that all no-hitters and perfect games have – that single, signature play that saves a piece of history as if destiny had determined today was the day. Destiny, though, is a fickle mistress, one who had yet to meet its true match that day.
Enter: Mike Baxter.
After the Mets added three runs to the board in the home half of the sixth, Santana almost waved goodbye to his no-hit bid for the second time in as many innings. With one out, Cardinals legend Yadier Molina smashed a ball to deep left-center. A Queens native and lifelong Mets fan, Baxter made a break for the ball, getting a jump just good enough to snag it out of the air as he crashed into the wall.
As he crumpled to the grass in a heap, Baxter managed to hold onto the ball, sacrificing his body to secure the second out and keep the no-hitter intact. The play has gone on to define Baxter’s career in New York, and possibly as a whole, on par with Endy Chavez’s catch in the 2006 NLCS against those very same St. Louis Cardinals.
In his new book, If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the New York Mets Dugout, Locker Room and Press Box, Mike Puma of the NY Post talked to Baxter about that famous play:
"I kind of stumbled after I caught it. That is where the whole play broke down. It was a fine play, but I don’t think it was this elite play or crazy good play. Unfortunately for myself, I couldn’t brace for the wall."
Baxter would eventually be diagnosed with a displaced collarbone and torn cartilage in two of his ribs. Santana would be late entering the on-deck circle because he had gone down the tunnel to check on his hero.
Throughout the course of the game, Patrick and his girlfriend had slowly made friends with a mid-30’s couple sitting near them. As is often the case at Mets games, the implicit camaraderie cultivated by mutual fandom evolves into gameday friendships, seating neighbors bonding over jeers and cheers alike.
As the game entered its final frames, the energy in the stadium went from average to astronomical. Fans were on their feet for the final two innings, increasingly aware of what they were all experiencing. Was this the moment we’ve all been waiting for? Was the improbable finally taking place?
Entering the ninth inning, Patrick found his arms wrapped around the shoulders of someone who had been a complete stranger not but several hours beforehand. Hearing him recount his memory of the day reminded me of when I was hoisted onto a stranger’s shoulders during the celebration of Benny Agbayani’s Game 3 walk-off homer against the Giants in 2000. It’s just the Mets way.
Facing the heart of the Cardinals order, Santana sat down their final three batters in a row, putting the most emphatic win in the books that Howie Rose could ever imagine. With a final swing and miss, Santana embraced catcher Josh Thole, taking in the glow of the first no-hitter in franchise history.
The seemingly impossible had, indeed, become possible.
So, Just How Great Was This Game?
At the end of the 2012 season, Bleacher Report ranked the game as the hardest no-hitter to achieve of the seven thrown that year, and it doesn’t take much research to figure out why:
"The lineup that Santana no-hit featured seven hitters in Rafael Furcal, Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, David Freese, Yadier Molina and Matt Adams who all had an OPS over .800 at the time. As a unit, the Cardinals were leading the National League in runs scored, and they had just wrapped up a month of May that saw them score a total of 157 runs with a collective OPS of .816. There was no question that they had the strongest lineup in the National League."
That’s right: Johan’s no-hitter came against a defending World Champion Redbirds team that, after closing out that incredible month of May, would finish the season top 10 in the league in walk rate and top five in runs per game. They also hit for a collective .271 average, good for second-best in the National League that year behind a Colorado Rockies team that hit .274. The Mets, meanwhile, hit .249 on the year, well below the league average mark of .255.
Now, if we were to compare the “Nohan” to some of the best pitching performances from this season (which has already seen six no-hitters through just two months of action), it’s important to take some extra factors into account.
When Santana faced them on June 1st, the Cardinals were batting .280 as a team; the average team BA for the teams that have been no-hit this season is a whopping .217. In the most directly comparable performance from this year, Cincinnati’s Wade Miley no-hit a Cleveland team who is currently averaging .215, and even less at game time on May 7. If we were to take things a step further, we would see that the league average this season is a mere .236 entering the month of June, a far cry from where the league ended up in 2012.
You may be wondering how much the variety of pitches thrown in an outing might impact a particular pitcher’s effectiveness on the mound at generating swings and misses or outs on balls in play. Interestingly, the numbers don’t change drastically between 2012 and 2021: generally speaking, pitchers are throwing breaking balls anywhere from 4%-5% of the time.
While the most prolific users of the offspeed pitch to generate outs are tossing breaking balls at a 5% rate, though, Johan’s offspeed arsenal only made up 3% of his pitch total for the entire 2012 season.
That pitchers are becoming increasingly reliant on breaking balls to get batters out is not surprising. A ball that drops seven inches from mound-to-plate while arriving at a speed of 85 mph immediately following a 97 mph straight fastball is going to be waved at most of the time.
In Miley’s no-hit bid, the 34-year-old showed off his range, tossing five different pitch varietals that showcased a lot of movement. Though fastballs made up most of his pitch count, he threw three different types of fastballs. Most prominently featured was his cutter, which accounted for nearly 40% of his 114 pitches.
However, when we look at Johan’s line from that fateful summer afternoon, one particular number jumps out: 56%.
Where Miley threw different types of fastballs throughout his no-no, Johan, who was 33 at the time, tossed a straight four-seam fastball 56% of the time. Even more interesting, Johan’s velocity topped out that night at 90 mph. Now, to be fair, Miley only topped out at 91, and the two southpaws allowed roughly the same number of balls to be put in play…but Miley also tossed 20 fewer pitches.
Though pitching has undoubtedly gotten harder to hit in the near-decade since Johan’s legendary game, it is indisputable that what he accomplished on that day, against one of the best offensive units in Major League Baseball, was then, and remains now, extraordinary.
Santana made just ten more Major League starts after his masterpiece. Great as it was, the game wore out his already-injured shoulder, and many credit the deterioration of his skills and career trajectory to the same performance that immortalized him.
When we look at some of the best outings of the 2021 season, most complete game performances will show a pitcher reaching a pitch count of around 110-115 pitches; Santana needed 134 to get the job done.
Mets skipper Terry Collins entered the game stating that Santana was on a target pitch limit of 115, arguably too high from the get-go considering the injury Santana was still recovering from. The anterior capsule is a crucial collection of ligaments that provide essential stability to the shoulder and is a notoriously difficult injury for pitchers to come back from, especially in their throwing shoulder.
Akin to Matt Harvey’s request to finish Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, many Mets fans question the decision-making of Collins; though in the moment, I would dare anyone else to try to pull Santana from that game.
“I just couldn’t take him out,” Collins said at the time.