Ace won't take this back, back, back

NEW YORK -- So this was the price Johan Santana had to pay for greatness, for throwing those 134 pitches no New York Mets fan will ever forget: back-to-back-to-back home runs, something he had never surrendered to any opponent, much less this one, and then Nick Swisher celebrating with an amateur-hour act to boot.

Sure it hurt. In fact, Santana had to be at least a little embarrassed, even after Terry Collins blamed himself for giving his ace too much rest. Santana knew he was the main attraction of this Subway Series opener, the biggest star in town, and yet there were the New York Yankees smacking him around as if he were some leather-faced coach throwing BP.

But hey, the four homers and six runs he allowed over five innings were worth it. That was the consolation prize for sure. If the Mets knew in advance Santana would get pummeled by the Yanks, yet only after delivering the first no-hitter since the franchise's birth in 1962, they would've signed up for that trade faster than Robinson Cano's first homer cleared the right-field wall.

"It was just a long waiting and a lot of things in between," Santana said. "You have to do a lot of interviews and a lot of talk and a lot of things, but it's just part of it. I'm happy for everything that happened, but we still have a long way to go. I knew that no-hitter wasn't the last game of the season."

It only felt that way last Friday night at Citi Field. Collins was so concerned about the well-being of his surgically repaired pitcher after he did what he did against the St. Louis Cardinals, the manager wouldn't let Santana go against the Nationals on Wednesday.

Santana was so concerned about the well-being of R.A. Dickey, he wouldn't let Collins throw him in Dickey's spot on Thursday. In the end, the Subway Series opener under the Friday night lights made the most sense, at least until it did not.

"We erred on the side of caution," Collins said, "and it cost us the game tonight."

After the Yankees were done hitting homers, the manager approached Santana in the dugout. This time Collins didn't tell the pitcher, "You're my hero." There were no heroes spotted on the visitors' side in the Bronx.

"This is my fault," Collins said.

Santana wasn't hearing it. The rust, the lack of command, the changeup that stayed up in the zone -- the pitcher wasn't slapping all of that on the desk of a manager who has wrapped him in a warm blanket of love.

"We're in this together," Santana said.

Together they stood no chance against the Yanks.

Santana never allowed himself to buy into the fantasy of a second straight no-hitter, something only one major leaguer (Johnny Vander Meer, 1938) had pulled off, but there was that first inning. Santana was so electric in that first inning.

Derek Jeter struck out on three pitches. Curtis Granderson lifted a fly ball on the fourth pitch. And Mark Teixeira went down looking on the 10th pitch, a 90-mph fastball down the middle. Yes, it felt like Santana was handling the 10th inning against the Cards.

But then Alex Rodriguez walked to lead off the next inning before Cano raged into the first pitch he saw, an 88-mph fastball, making it 2-0. Right there it was clear Santana wouldn't be the same force of nature he was against the defending World Series champs.

Santana entered the night 13-3 when pitching on six or more days of rest, so the deferred start, the disruption of his routine, couldn't be solely blamed for what was about to unfold. Only Santana didn't make any of those 16 starts after delivering an historic no-hitter, and after going 19 pitches beyond his manager's prescribed limit for an ace still rebounding from major shoulder surgery.

Santana had won two Cy Young Awards in Minnesota, but he became a huge national figure, a David Letterman Top 10 list figure, by doing something no Met had accomplished for more than half a century and change. The fuss had to take something out of him. Collins could've sent his man on a two-week Caribbean cruise between and Santana still wouldn't have been the same on return.

The Stadium collapsed around Santana with two outs in the third. Cano got him again on the first pitch, this time lining a slider over the right-field wall. Swisher immediately followed with a homer to left, off a fastball, and Andruw Jones immediately followed with more of the same, off a changeup.

Santana turned away from the flight of Jones' ball and walked toward the plate, too disgusted to watch.

"It's just one of those days," he would say. "I didn't have my feeling for that changeup."

His signature weapon, the one that finished off David Freese and the Mets' most memorable regular-season night.

Swisher slapped an exclamation point on the assault by throwing his arms wide from the top step of the dugout, and then by jogging past his bench with the same form. Santana deserved a lot better than that. If Swisher didn't mean to show up the Mets' pitcher, he had a funny way of showing it.

Whatever. Santana threw 86 pitches, then watched the ugly balance of a 9-1 defeat. Hiroki Kuroda was the man this time, carrying his own no-no into the sixth before Omar Quintanilla doubled to left center, one of two lousy Mets hits in all. Kuroda might've gone the distance had Daniel Murphy not ripped a liner off his left foot.

"This is the best I've ever seen him pitch," Collins said.

The losing manager was done chastising himself for his starter's dreadful night. In a corner of his clubhouse, Santana kept saying his performance was just part of the game.

"I know there were a lot of expectations and a lot of people waiting for tonight," Santana said, "and it just happened."

He managed a thin smile when he talked about the week that was, the week that changed his baseball legacy and life. As much as the Mets would make that trade with Minnesota all over again, Santana would re-do this deal in a heartbeat.

He got beaten up by the Yanks because he threw an indelible no-hitter the week before. That's what baseball people call a fair trade.