Santana starting to look right again

NEW YORK -- The pitch tipping is gone. There's extra life on the fastball. And the changeup once again looks like one of the best in baseball.

It seems like New York Mets ace Johan Santana has worked through the issues that made his June a forgettable one.

Now, after two straight dominant starts in July, Santana has positioned himself to have another strong second half following the All-Star break.

"I think he can make a pretty good run for us," manager Jerry Manuel said Tuesday night after Santana threw a three-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds in the Mets' 3-0 win at Citi Field. It was Santana's first complete-game shutout in three years.

On a night when everything seemed to go right for the Mets lefty, he even did his best to take care of the run-support issues that had plagued his recent starts by hitting the first home run of his big league career at the end of a 12-pitch at-bat in the third inning.

"I didn't believe it was out," Santana said of the home run, which gave the Mets a 1-0 lead. "When I saw the ball and then everybody cheering, it was a great feeling. One of the best."

Santana, who walked three and struck out five, was all smiles after his shutdown performance against the Reds, who lead the National League with a .275 team batting average. He seems poised to add to his legacy as baseball's best second-half pitcher -- his .763 winning percentage (61-19) is the game's best in the second half of all time.

But a month ago, things weren't going so smoothly for the Mets' $137 million man.

Santana (6-5, 3.15 ERA) had given up four runs or more in four straight starts prior to his start in Washington on July 1, and he finished just 1-3 in June. Pitching coach Dan Warthen worked with Santana on lowering his hand position to keep him from tipping hitters on his changeup prior to that Washington start.

The change seemed to work against the Nationals, as Santana allowed just one run in seven innings. The problem that reared its ugly head -- as it has for much of Santana's season -- was the fact that the Mets couldn't score any runs for him, and the Mets' bullpen allowed a run in the ninth, leaving Santana with yet another no-decision.

The Mets averaged 2.9 runs per game in Santana's starts prior to Tuesday, which is the fifth-lowest total in the NL. He has limited the opposition to one earned run or fewer in 10 starts this season but came away with a no-decision in five of them.

Santana's solo homer in the third -- the first for a Mets pitcher since John Maine hit one off Pittsburgh's Ian Snell on July 24, 2007, at Shea Stadium -- lightened the mood in the Mets' dugout. Jeff Francoeur joked afterward that Santana "took his helmet off like it was college baseball" after rounding the bases.

All jokes aside, the Mets right fielder marveled at Santana's efficiency Tuesday, when he threw first-pitch strikes to 28 of the 34 hitters he faced (his highest ratio in 31 starts). Santana went to just two 2-0 counts all night. Reds hitters were 0-for-13 on his fastball -- the first time in 83 starts that opposing hitters went hitless swinging at Santana's fastballs. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Santana's fastball averaged 90.3 miles per hour, his best fastball velocity of the season. Manuel and Santana credit the increase in velocity to the pitcher dropping his hand position.

Mets catcher Rod Barajas can attest to the increase in velocity.

"I can feel it," he said.

Barajas caught Santana's June 26 start against the Minnesota Twins, in which Santana allowed five runs on eight hits in a 6-0 loss. The catcher recalled Twins hitters laying off Santana's changeup, a sign they knew the pitch was coming. Santana certainly didn't have the same issue Tuesday.

Santana also threw his changeup for a strike on 24 of 29 offerings and retired eight hitters on the first pitch, which ties the MLB season high.

All the beautiful statistics might have been an afterthought if Manuel had decided to take Santana out in the ninth inning. Manuel visited the mound after Jason Bay couldn't come up with Jay Bruce's fly ball to left, putting runners on first and second with one out. But Santana assured Manuel that he could finish the game, and the manager left the ball in his hands.

"I wanted to hear him tell me that he wanted to finish it," Manuel said. "That's what he told me."

Two pitches later, Santana was celebrating his sixth win of the season, putting a forgettable June behind him and looking forward to what he hopes is another dominant second half.

Ian Begley is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com

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