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Mets' winter prize pays early dividends

Mets' winter prize pays early dividends

NEW YORK -- This is the Subway Series with the Substantial Sub-plot:

The Mets, the team that acquired Johan Santana, against the Yankees, the team that decided it would go in a different direction.

On Saturday at Yankee Stadium, you had to score one for the Mets and for Santana, 7-4. Not only did the Mets prevail behind Santana, but they beat Andy Pettitte. It was in part the return of Pettitte's veteran presence for the 2008 season that made the Yankees believe that Santana would not be an essential commodity.

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This one game does not prove that the Yankees took the wrong organizational route in not obtaining Santana. Their newfound devotion to the development of young pitching may still turn out to be a long-term success, if the organization maintains enough patience to allow the process to work.

But this one game did underscore how valuable Santana can be to the Mets. He is the ace they previously did not have, somebody who can stop a slide, somebody who can win a game when a game desperately needed to be won, like Saturday's contest against the Yanks.

"That's what I'm here for -- that's what I want to do," Santana said. "I know exactly what my role is. ... Every time I go out there, I try to make it very special."

For $137.5 million, that's exactly what you want to hear.

And there was no overstating how much the Mets needed this one, and not just because the Yankees were the opponents. The Mets had lost three of four to the Nationals and had gone through a bout of internal turmoil regarding which players were practicing personal accountability and which weren't.

"We needed it to just get to where we start feeling good about ourselves again," manager Willie Randolph said. "It was no secret that we needed to get a win in the worst way."

And Santana was the logical choice for the task at hand.

"It's a big game," Randolph said. "Any time you have a game of this magnitude -- in Yankee Stadium; the Subway Series has been built up for a while now -- you bring him here to pitch those kinds of games. He handles it well. He's been there before. This is what we expect from him. He's my stopper. He's the leader of our staff."

Since joining the Mets, Santana has not necessarily been the pitcher who won two Cy Young Awards in the American League. But he has been good enough. Saturday was a microcosm of that notion. Santana was not overpowering, but he was more than up to the task of winning the opener of the 2008 Subway Series.

Santana gave up a two-run home run in the first inning to Derek Jeter but nothing more until the seventh, when Jason Giambi hit a solo homer. Bobby Abreu added one in the eighth. For the most part, Santana kept the Yankees off-balance, the way he keeps everybody off-balance, changing speeds, working with command, pitching with effectiveness and economy.

Pettitte had to throw 116 pitches to get through six innings, in part because of a four-single, two-walk fourth inning that required 41 pitches. Pettitte was not exactly beaten about the head and shoulders at any point, but then again, he didn't win. His exit led to the appearance of Kyle Farnsworth, and that led to a decisive two-homer, three-run seventh inning for the Mets.

Santana, meanwhile, was highly efficient, needing just 100 pitches to get through 7 2/3 innings. One of his best moments had nothing to do with throwing the baseball and everything to do with self-defense. A fourth-inning line drive off the bat of Giambi was going directly for his head, but Santana's reactions were quick enough to get the glove up in front of his face and turn danger into an out.

"He hit the ball very well, and I just reacted to it," Santana said. "I just saw it and I put my glove up, and I was able to make the catch. I was just lucky enough and quick enough to put my glove on the ball."

Santana is 5-2 with a 3.30 ERA. He has allowed 11 home runs, which is not the stuff of greatness, but the three home runs against him here damaged only his ERA and not the Mets' cause.

When he was asked on Saturday if he was concerned about the home runs, Santana responded, "No, not at all. I mean, you've got a good team over there on the other side. [Against] strong guys, if you make mistakes, the ball is going to leave the park."

And, Santana noted, "I'm giving up a lot of home runs with nobody on."

The home runs allowed by Santana don't particularly disturb his manager, either.

"He challenges you -- he's real confident in his stuff," Randolph said. "A lot of great pitchers do that. I know Catfish Hunter and those types of guys gave up a lot of home runs, because they're so confident. They believe that they can execute a pitch. But every so often, you'll get under one, you'll leave it up there. [A home run] is going to happen every once in a while, but I don't have a problem with it, as long as he holds them down and gets us the 'W.'"

He got them a very large "W" on Saturday. For the long term, it is impossible to know whether the Yankees' decision to retain their young pitching as opposed to acquire Santana was the right move. The history of the game says that this is the sound, safe and sane way to proceed, but the pressure to win now is ever-present with this franchise.

For the short-term, with the Mets, the acquisition of Johan Santana is looking like a very sound move, even at the cost of his contract and at the cost of all of the young talent that was traded to the Twins.

It may be too early to make a call on a six-year contract, but for Game 1 of the 2008 Subway Series, a genuinely large occasion in more ways than one, the Mets had precisely the right left-hander at exactly the right time.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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