It was a perfect setting for his best work; a game against the Phillies, in an expanding rivalry, against the team that knocked the Mets out of the postseason and into the land of late-season embarrassment last year, against a team that took over the top spot in the National League East.
It was a game against a hard-hitting team in a hitter-friendly park. And it was a game against a young lefty, Cole Hamels, who was 15-5 last year and who is on the way to an extraordinary career himself.
It was a marquee matchup in more ways than one, and Santana was fully up to his share of the task. Any ground that was lost in his Shea Stadium debut last weekend, when he surrendered three home runs to the Milwaukee Brewers, was made up here with interest.
Santana pitched the Mets to a 6-4 victory, in a game that was more of a pitchers' duel than the final score would suggest. Pitching seven-plus innings, he gave up four hits, walked none and struck out 10. He left in the eighth, with a 5-1 lead. His line was inflated when Aaron Heilman gave up a three-run homer to Greg Dobbs with two of Santana's runners on base. This may have damaged the statistical nature of Santana's night, but it didn't lessen the overall quality of Santana's effort.
"Johan, in a difficult ballpark to pitch in, did what he had to do," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "He was outstanding. This is what we're looking for every time he goes out there."
And what made this even better baseball was the fact that Hamels pitched so well for the Phillies, allowing just two runs (one earned) over the first seven innings. The situation seemed to demand a big performance from Santana, and then the circumstances of the game turned that demand into a reality.
This was the Santana who was the American League's Cy Young Award winner in 2004 and '06, a mixture of power and precision, a man who could beat hitters with perfectly placed fastballs or baffle them with change of speeds. Through seven innings, he gave up only two hits in what was then a 2-1 game. One of them was a seventh-inning home run to Chase Utley, but that kind of thing can and will occur.
What Santana does with relentless effectiveness is command both inside and outside corners with his fastball and then works from there. Between his command and his ability to mix his pitches, when he is on, he is not going to be hit with anything like consistency by anybody.
Friday night, he suggested that his changeup was just "OK," but he used his slider extensively and against a very difficult lineup he was in total command for seven innings. He wound up with his 40th double-digit strikeout game, his first for the Mets.
Santana was asked if, because this was his first game against the Phillies with the Mets, he wanted to make a "statement." His answer indicated clearly what sort of competitor he is. He intends that every outing makes a statement.
"Every time I go out there, I feel that way," Santana said. "Every time I go out there is my time, regardless of what team I'm facing."
And he's a class act. When he was asked about facing Hamels, Santana responded:
"He's got a great future ahead of him and I wish him all the best."
For the Mets and their fans, the future of Santana is the more pressing business. Their commitment to him cannot be overstated, not merely because of the $137.5 million, although that is monumental enough, but because of the heavy price paid in prospects to get him from the Minnesota Twins.
The quality of this performance will have to be repeated night after night over several seasons for this kind of investment to be fully repaid. That is asking a lot, but then, the Mets are paying a lot.
But the encouraging aspect for the Mets on Friday night was that in some truly difficult circumstances -- against the Phillies, in Citizens Bank Park, against a quality starter -- Santana came through with precisely the kind of top-shelf performance his team needed. It was not a stretch, it was not a reach, it was simply Santana being typically very, very good.