Johan's troubles not just off the field

NEW YORK -- It was easy to wonder where Mets starter Johan Santana's mind was before Saturday's game and the answer -- not a good one -- came right away.

Santana was facing the Minnesota Twins, the first big-league club he starred for. He was pitching in New York for the first time since a graphic police report detailing an October sexual assault allegation against him in Florida made tabloid news on Wednesday, and prodded him to publicly address that he had had sex at a Fort Myers golf course with a woman who is not his wife. But he hadn't been charged with any crime.

So it had been an emotional week for Santana even before he threw his first pitch against the Twins on Saturday afternoon at Citi Field. Though Santana denied afterward that whatever baggage he lugged out to the mound could explain how badly the Twins belted him around to start the game -- "Not at all," Santana insisted -- nothing about his part in the Mets' 6-0 loss is going to stop more sharp questions from coming at him.

"What's wrong with Santana?" is the most stupefying problem the Mets have right now in an otherwise nice season. Mets manager Jerry Manuel, looking a bit more frustrated than usual after a loss, didn't flatly dismiss a suggestion after Saturday's game that, at age 31 and coming off the second of two elbow surgeries this past offseason, Santana might now just be "a guy who will battle you."

Manuel didn't directly answer the question. And yet he sort of did. Manuel conceded that perhaps hitters have caught up to Santana -- or at least his pitching patterns. And Santana, standing by his locker later, agreed with him.

When Manuel was asked directly if Santana just doesn't have that devastating swing-and-miss change-up anymore -- the implication being the pitch that made Santana arguably the best starter in baseball is gone and ain't coming back -- Manuel didn't dismiss that suggestion, either.

But again, instead of just flat-out agreeing, Manuel instead talked about how Santana did better Saturday once he began to work in his slider more.

The slider? That would be Santana's third-best pitch, if you're keeping score at home.

None of that -- nor the way the Twins smacked Santana around in the first inning for four runs while rapping out three of the four doubles they belted off him on the day -- is likely to make anyone feel better about Santana's ability to be the pitcher he once was, or the superstar the Mets thought they were getting in 2008.

Santana's final line on Saturday read five runs, eight hits, two walks and a balk in six innings pitched.

The Mets are 3-8 in his last 11 starts and they aren't likely to stay in contention for a whole season in the NL East with Santana's record hovering at .500 like it is now.

All of the current talk about Mike Pelfrey having passed Santana as the genuine ace of the Mets was originally fun to kick around because it sounded so provocative, but Pelfrey isn't big-game tested like Santana is, and if the Mets are going anywhere, they will need to have both of them pitching like aces. All the guesswork about whether the Mets will go out and trade for another starter like Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt is a nice conversation, too. But they'll have stiff competition to get either pitcher by the trade deadline, even if they are available.

The Mets need Santana -- a star they already have -- to be lights-out if they're really going to go anywhere in the NL East this year. The Atlanta Braves look strong. The Philadelphia Phillies are stirring. The Mets can't expect knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to stay undefeated forever or Carlos Beltran to come back and tear up the league after a year away from the game with knee trouble. If the race stays as close as it is now, the Mets have a lot of bad September history to overcome, too.

They don't need the added psychodrama of not knowing what they'll get from Santana. They need Santana to be very good, or great. They need him to be serene, not haunted by scandal. They need him striking people out again, not trying to totally re-invent himself this late in his career.

"It's not the end of the world," Santana said of Saturday's loss. "I trust all my pitches and I have to use them all."

It's just odd to seem them get hit this much.

Minnesota manager Rod Gardenhire, speaking before the game, said neither he nor the Twins' advance scouts had seen anything in Santana, not even during his recent struggles, that suggested much about him had changed from when he was dominating the American League for the Twins.

"He looks pretty good to me -- about the same, really," Gardenhire said, sitting at his manager's desk and taking a glance at the Twins' scouting report on Santana. "The velocity we've got on him [88 to 92 mph] doesn't look much different than what ours was on him when we had him. ... There were times when Johan could pump it up, and hit 93, 94, but it depended on what radar gun you were on. Normally he settled down around 91."

Even if you buy that Santana is physically close to the same pitcher he was when he won the Cy Young Award with Minnesota in 2006 -- and that's a stretch -- some baseball insiders wondered if Santana's personality made him a good fit for New York. The question is fair game again now that Santana is not only scuffling, but going through the first whiff of scandal in his 11-year career.

"I just keep pitching, I just keep playing, that's how I am," Santana said, referring again to his off-field issues. "I just focus on baseball."

Santana is lucky that the Mets are doing well even without him, or life in New York really could be hell. No matter where he looks now -- on the field or off -- there's not a lot of good to focus on. That question -- "What's wrong with Santana?" -- dogs the Mets.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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