PHILADELPHIA -- As you watched Johan Santana overmatch the Phillies on Friday in his first visit to Philadelphia as a Met, it was hard to resist asking this question:
What if he'd been a Met last year?
Suppose the Mets could have sent Santana out there to save the season on the last Sunday of regular play. Or to prevent one of those seven straight losses to the Phillies down the stretch.
How different could things have been?
OK, enough of that. There are certain questions in life you just can't answer -- and probably shouldn't ask in the first place. And that is one of them.
But here's a question that's not so far-fetched:
How much of a difference might Santana make this season in the life of the NL East?
Well, it's still about five months too soon to answer that one. But Santana gave quite the spectacular sneak preview Friday in the 6-4 Mets victory. The score -- and his final pitching line -- bore no relationship to how dominating he actually was.
For seven innings, Santana carved up the Phillies, dialing up a 10-strikeout, zero-walk two-hitter that was ridiculously efficient.
No Philly hitter went to the plate with a runner in scoring position. The only three-ball count was against the first hitter of the game. And among the 24 hitters who arrived at home plate and the 96 pitches they saw whooshing their way, it was hard to count more than five good swings.
"Santana," teammate Ryan Church gushed, "was just filthy."
And he needed to be filthy, because for those first seven innings, he was locked in a pitching duel versus the Phillies' Cy-Young-in-training Cole Hamels.
You wouldn't know, looking at the final totals, that this was a 2-1 game heading into the eighth. Or that the starting pitchers had allowed only one earned run apiece to that point.
Unfortunately, the two managers sent both starters out to pitch the eighth, and some bullpen-aided messiness ensued. But when it was over and the Mets were shaking hands, no one had put a bigger stamp on this game than The Great Santana.
"There's not too many players or pitchers in this game that can single-handedly bring your team to a different level," said Mets third baseman David Wright, whose four-hit evening had a little something to do with the outcome, too. "But Johan is one of them."
And he is. You can look it up. When Santana started for the Twins over the past five years, they went 105-47. When anybody else started, they barely had a winning record. Sounds like the definition of "different level".
If he takes the Mets to a different level, they figure to enjoy the view. After all, this team won 185 games the past two seasons. So there aren't many levels left.
"Oh yes there are," Wright said, laughing. "There are quite a few. You saw what happened last year, right?"
Well, right. But then, that's what Santana is doing here.
Heck, the reason he's a Met right now could be summed up by nights like this one.
It was the first game of an amped-up April series, in a pitcher's nightmare of a ballpark.
It took place in the city where the Mets were embarrassed by a four-game sweep the last time they were in town, the final week of this past August.
The Mets faced a team that has them higher on its radar screen than anyone else on its schedule.
And the opposing pitcher just happened to be the most dominating young left-hander in the league whose name isn't spelled S-A-N-T-A-N-A.
So yeah, it was April. But if this was just another game on the schedule, Vegas is just another dusty town in Nevada.
"I think this is one of those big early season tests for us," Wright said. "We played well against them [in New York]. Now we've got to prove we can play them just as tough in this park."
The Mets couldn't have picked a better night to start proving it, considering the pitching matchup. It was so dynamic even the guys playing in the game sounded like they would have paid to see it.
"I can't wait," Santana's former Twins teammate, Phillies reliever J.C. Romero, said before the game. "I was telling the guys I want to bring popcorn and a soda out to the bullpen and just sit there and watch for the first five or six innings."
"For me," Mets closer Billy Wagner said, "if there was any way you could sit outside your body and watch this game, and see these two guys bring their A game and pitch this game, I think that would be a fantastic game to do that. It's kinda like one of those old John Smoltz--Randy Johnson games."
Yeah, kinda. Hamels, of course, has slightly less name recognition than Smoltz, Johnson or Santana. But if you check the stats a little closer, you'll see what he's doing in this conversation.
If you rank all active left-handed starters with 50 or more starts by winning percentage, strikeout ratio, opponent average, WHIP and strikeout-walk ratio, Hamels joins Santana and Johnson in the top three in all categories. In fact, Hamels beats the Big Unit in WHIP and strikeout-walk ratio. Who knew?
"I've played with Cole and Johan, and they're both great," Wagner said. "If you're talking experience and track record, you'd have to go toward Johan. But if you look at the upside of Cole Hamels, the sky's the limit."
But on this night, as good as Hamels was, it wasn't too tough to tell which of the two starters was the two-time Cy Young award winner.
Hamels had just four strikeouts in seven-plus innings -- two of them against Santana. He had to pitch around persistent command issues. He underused his killer changeup and got only five swings and misses out of 102 pitches. He also gave up four hits to Wright, who came in hitting .091 (1-of-11 with five strikeouts) against him.
Santana, on the other hand, had the Phillies lurching and spinning all night. He struck out eight of the first 13 hitters he faced and, surprisingly, piled up all but one of those whiffs on fastballs, sliders and cutters.
"He moved it around -- in and out, up and down -- and that's the best part about him," Randolph said. "He can use all his pitches and not just rely on his changeup."
Santana (now 2-2 with a 3.25 ERA) did serve up a seventh-inning solo homer to Chase Utley, his fifth gopherball in 27 2/3 innings so far this season. But you never, ever got the feeling Santana was in serious trouble, even against a lineup that led the league in runs scored last year, in a park where pop-ups turn into home runs.
The only reason it might not look quite as overwhelming in the box score is that he gave up a couple of soft singles to start the eighth inning -- and then, Aaron Heilman marched out of the bullpen to cough up a three-run homer to Greg Dobbs on the second pitch he threw. But until then, Santana controlled the entire evening the way Jeff Gordon controls his steering wheel.
"He makes it easy on us," Church said, chuckling. "You know, you're out there in the late innings, and you're thinking, 'Uh-oh, their one-hole, two-hole, three-hole hitters are coming up. This is a big inning for Santana.' And then he goes right through them. It's like bang, bang, bang, see ya later, let's go hit."
That, however, is what acehood is all about. And it seems clear Santana has arrived at a different level of acehood than Hamels. After lining up against Santana for the first time, even Hamels understands what all the Johan hoopla is about.
"Because I did get to face him hitting-wise, I definitely realize why he's the pitcher he is," Hamels said. "Just with the electric fastball, the slider you can't see, and then he's got that changeup where he keeps pulling the string back and you don't know what to do."
Santana admits he knows all about Hamels, too. But none of this sounds as if it's any big deal to him. Not the money. Not the pressure. And not his first taste of the burgeoning rivalry between the Mets and their good friends, the Phillies.
"I'm not trying to do anything special against any team," he said. "Every time that I'm out there, for me, is my time, regardless of what team I'm facing. And even though the atmosphere dictates, kind of, what kind of game you're going to have, I'm not going to do anything different. I'm just trying to be myself, trying to enjoy every moment out there."
Ah, but no matter how much he thinks he's enjoying himself, we'd bet the $137.5 million in his six-year contract that when he's out there punching out 10 on a gorgeous April night in Philadelphia, his teammates are enjoying it more than Santana.
After all, they've spent a few nights in South Philly that didn't go anywhere near this famously.
"Yeah, that's a good win right there," Church said. "That's a good win for the old program."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.