Santana displays greatness and grit

Santana displays greatness and grit

BOSTON -- For the last five-plus seasons, the best starting pitcher in baseball has been Johan Santana. He can be so good that even the imposing numbers he produces sometimes cannot fully demonstrate the level of his work.

Santana's greatness and grit were both on display on Friday night at Fenway Park for the New York Mets' opening Interleague game against the Boston Red Sox. Statistically, this was not anything like Santana's best start, but it was one of his most necessary starts. The Mets were on a four-game losing streak, they were all banged up and they were up against the Red Sox, who came in with the Majors' best home record, 16-4, and had just swept the previously hot Toronto Blue Jays.

Santana won two Cy Young Awards in his American League tenure with the Twins, but the truth was that the one place his success had not reached was Fenway Park. Before this game, he was 1-3 at Fenway in four appearances, three starts, with a 6.89 ERA.

You sensed early that this one was going to be different. The first two Red Sox hitters of the night reached, on an infield single and an error. Santana had done nothing wrong, but here was trouble; two on, nobody out, the heart of Boston's order coming up -- David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay. But Santana responded like this: strikeout, strikeout, grounder for a forceout.

Even after that, it was never particularly easy in a 5-3 Mets victory. This was not the Mets' ideal team that confronted the Red Sox. New York was missing power with first baseman Carlos Delgado out after hip surgery. They were missing speed with shortstop Jose Reyes, day to day with tendinitis in his right calf. Carlos Beltran, a center fielder of the first magnitude, was only available as a DH because of knee soreness. Right fielder Ryan Church exited in the fourth inning with a sore right hamstring. The regular catcher, Brian Schneider, has been on the disabled list for more than a month.

Santana had to throw many additional pitches because his teammates committed three errors, two of them by fill-in shortstop Ramon Martinez. But Santana kept battling, throwing 118 pitches over seven innings.

"He's making his pitches, and he's executing his pitches, but we're not executing on our end defensively," manager Jerry Manuel said. "And to some degree, that has to be frustrating. But he battled."

If Santana was frustrated, the frustration didn't show in his performance. He did what the great ones are supposed to do, pitching around, over and beyond the errors.

"That's what I was doing, showing my teammates that I was there for them," Santana said. "You've got to let them know that you're still there, even if we make mistakes."

For these seven innings, the results would have been exceptional for another pitcher, but on a numerical basis, they were slightly below average for the 2009 Santana -- six hits, two earned runs, one walk, eight strikeouts. He is now 6-2 with a 1.50 ERA.

But the circumstances and the degree of difficulty made this another truly impressive performance for Santana. He struck out Ortiz and Youkilis three times each. Ortiz has been slumping for most of the season, but Youkilis came in hitting .402.

The Mets reached way down into their pockets to obtain Santana, sending legitimate prospects to the Twins to obtain him, then signing him to a $137.5 million deal. Most of us mere mortals cannot comprehend this kind of expenditure, but given today's wildly inflated pitching market, this may have not have been a completely outrageous sum.

Look around at the other top-shelf starters in the contemporary game. Toronto's Roy Halladay has been as good as anybody, in selected seasons. The same could be said of San Diego's Jake Peavy, Arizona's Brandon Webb and Chris Carpenter of St. Louis. All have had terrific seasons, but nothing like Santana's consistent excellence. Houston's Roy Oswalt undoubtedly deserves more credit than he has received, but he doesn't have Santana's body of work, either. Boston's Josh Beckett has been absolutely dominant at times -- such as the 2007 postseason -- but not all of the time.

A new generation of top-flight pitchers could be emerging. San Francisco's Tim Lincecum has already won a Cy Young Award. Kansas City's Zack Greinke is having a superlative stretch this season and has indisputable, terrific stuff. Still, as talented as these pitchers may be, as much potential as they might have, they cannot yet have Santana's track record.

The Yankees' CC Sabathia is the wealthiest pitcher, with a contract worth $23.5 million more than Santana's. But his numbers, though commendable and more, do not compare with those put up by Santana. But that may mean that for $137.5 million, the Mets got what now appears to be something of a relative bargain with Santana. He just turned 30. He is healthy. He is left-handed. He is in full command of his craft and the strike zone.

Since 2004, Santana leads starting pitchers in victories, ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched. He may be even better than his primary numbers indicate. Last season, he was 16-7, but given better run support and a more reliable bullpen, he could have had 25 victories.

But the numbers, for either the pitching stats or the money, can't measure value to a team at a moment when everything is going wrong, when the opposition is looking unbeatable, when injuries and circumstances conspire to make the immediate future appear bleak.

That's where the Mets were on Friday night, along with being in Boston. They needed the ace of aces, somebody with head and heart, guile and grim determination. Fortunately, they have all of that in one pitcher, Johan Santana.

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