So on Sunday, in the third game of this season's Subway Series, the Yankees had to face Johan Santana. By the numbers, Santana has been the best starting pitcher in baseball over the last five-plus seasons. Two American League Cy Young Awards, 93 victories since 2004 and entering Sunday an 8-3 record this season that -- with even normal support -- could have been 11-1.
The Yankees had not hit particularly well in this week's three-game sweep by the Red Sox. They had managed nine runs on Friday night against the Mets, although they needed a Luis Castillo error with two outs in the ninth inning to win, 9-8. And then they had been silenced by Nieve.
The Yankees have an indisputably good offense. But it had been sputtering a bit lately, and in any case, great pitching beats great hitting. The pick on Sunday would have been Santana against anybody -- even the Yankees at their place.
So of course the Yankees pounded lumps on Santana. They get him for nine runs, a career high for Santana. The three-plus innings he pitched also tied for the shortest start of his career. One way or another, this sunny Sunday in the Bronx would be the first time that a team clobbered Johan Santana in this manner, to this extent.
From pillar to post, the Yanks beat Santana; nine earned runs on nine hits. They got four runs in the second, which was surprising enough. They caught a breath in the third. But in the fourth, they erupted for nine runs, five of which were scored off Santana. The left-hander faced five Yankees in the fourth inning and retired none of them.
Walk. Home run (by Hideki Matsui). Double. Single. Single. That was it for Santana, although the Yankees kept scoring runs against his successor, Brian Stokes. By the time the afternoon ended, the final score -- 15-0 -- felt like a conservative estimate.
On the other side of the argument, Yankees starter A.J. Burnett bounced back from another disheartening bashing by the Red Sox to shut out the Mets over seven innings. He was in serious trouble once -- when the game was still a game. Burnett loaded the bases with no outs in the third, but two strikeouts and a soft liner to short ended that threat.
Still, Burnett is expected to pitch well. This is why the Yankees went to considerable lengths -- $82.5 million over five years -- to acquire his services. The surprise here is not that he stopped the Mets. The surprise is that the Yankees never stopped hitting Santana.
Santana's velocity was down slightly on Sunday -- many of his fastballs were timed at 90 mph. And his command was nothing like normal, either, as he frequently left pitches up and made mistakes in the strike zone. But somebody had to hit these pitches for those shortcomings to matter. The Yankees were fully up to the task. They had two-out hits. They had two-strike hits.
"Great at-bats from guys kept innings going," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "It was the ability of the guys to fight through those at-bats -- Santana's awfully tough, and he has been awfully tough on us."
Santana said that he did not have a physical problem that could explain this performance. Mets manager Jerry Manuel suggested that after a substantial stretch of dominant performances, even Santana was bound to have a bump in the road.
"It's just baseball," Manuel said. "It's impossible for him to stay on that run he was on."
Weighing the strengths of both sides in this contest, it would be fair to say that Santana had a terrible day that was made even worse because of the persistence and perseverance of the Yankees' hitters. Santana could have had this same day against another club and he would have been hit hard, but probably not to the tune of nine runs.
The Yankees sorely wanted this victory. The dominant performance didn't hurt, either. Maybe they didn't need all 15 runs, but they very much desired an emphatic victory.
After the Yankees' record against the Red Sox dropped to 0-8 on Thursday night, losing a series at home -- to the Mets -- would have been an extremely discouraging development. We shouldn't go around calling mid-June games "pivotal," but it would be fair to say that Sunday's contest seemed to have more on the line than the usual 1/162nd portion of the season. The Subway Series is always emotional for somebody, but the Yankees desperately wanted to win a series, regardless of which team was in the other dugout.
It was how they got to two out of three that was remarkable. The Mets handed them one with a game-ending error on Friday night -- but then Nieve handcuffed them on Saturday. Finally, against a left-hander as good as anybody in the game, the Yankees not only beat Santana, but they left him with the worst start of his Major League career.
The Yankees would have realistically hoped to win two of three at home against the Mets. But neither the Yankees, nor anyone else, could have correctly predicted this scenario.
"The easiest way to describe it is just the Subway Series," Girardi said with a smile. "You're going to see some strange things."