Santana secures place in Mets lore

Johan Santana was the right man to do it, the right pitcher to deliver a magical moment that escaped more than a half-century's worth of New York Mets. Truth is, he had this no-hitter coming to him since the day he tried to lift the Mets into the playoffs with a torn meniscus in his left knee.

At the end of 2008, his first season with the Mets, Santana declared his historical worthiness on short rest, throwing a three-hit shutout at the Florida Marlins only four days after firing a career-high 125 pitches. He knew his knee was shot when he took the mound that day, and yet his commitment to excellence won out over pure common sense.

It didn't matter that the Mets failed to make the postseason the following day; Santana won just by showing up. He'd endure knee and elbow and shoulder surgeries between then and now, and he'd come back from it all strong enough and tough enough to carry the burdens of a bum-luck franchise Friday night, when he did something Tom Seaver and Doc Gooden and David Cone could not.

He completed a game in the colors of the Mets without surrendering even one single, double, triple or home run.

Santana had never pulled this off, not in the minor leagues, not even in his childhood in Venezuela. "I don't even think I've thrown a no-hitter in video games," Santana said in his postgame news conference at Citi Field.

This was his own video game come to life, and legions of New Yorkers were glued to their TV sets to see if the same left shoulder that cost Santana the entire 2011 season could go the distance against the St. Louis Cardinals.

"They are the world champs," Santana would say. "To talk about a no-hitter coming into this game, no way."

It made no sense, of course it didn't. But this is the way curses and hexes are broken. The Boston Red Sox won it all in 2004 in an absurd show, winning four straight sudden-death games against the New York Yankees, and maybe that was the only way the Red Sox would ever put Babe Ruth's ghost to bed.

The Mets had gone more than 8,000 games without a no-hitter, their surgically repaired starter was supposed to be limited to 110-115 pitches, give or take, and their young catcher, Josh Thole, had just come off the DL. The Cardinals no longer dressed Albert Pujols, but they were still the Cardinals, still the team that had just won it all.

The Cardinals were also the team that denied the Mets a trip to the 2006 World Series, stealing the NLCS at Shea. Adam Wainwright struck out Carlos Beltran looking to end that Game 7, a game won by Yadier Molina's homer. It was fitting that six seasons later, all three assumed leading roles in a night most Mets fans figured they'd never live to see.

Wainwright took the loss. His new teammate, Beltran, lined a ball down the line in the sixth that hit the chalk and should've terminated the no-hit bid, if only an umpire named Adrian Johnson had gotten the call right.

Molina? He sent a deep drive to left in the seventh, one that looked destined to end the madness, and yet Mike Baxter, a Mets fan from Queens, made the team's best catch since Endy Chavez's in that doomed Game 7. Chavez went over the wall at Shea; Baxter nearly crashed through the wall at Citi.

"That's the way Mike's always played," his legendary coach at Archbishop Molloy High, Jack Curran, said Friday night by phone. "It's his nature. He's going to do everything he can to help his team win, and on that catch the wall just got in his way. I hope he's not hurt too badly. He was so happy as a Mets fan to become a Met, and now he's a part of their history."

Santana wrote that history with 134 pitches, a new career high. He wrote that history while his manager, Terry Collins, waged a fierce battle against himself in the dugout, weighing the magnitude of what was unfolding against the well-being of his man.

"I just couldn't take him out," an emotional Collins would say in his news conference. "I just couldn't do it."

Collins said if Santana's arm is hurting in five days, "I'm not going to feel very good." But the manager believes in empowering his players, in giving them a voice, and Santana was ordering his boss to back up and let him finish the job.

"You're my hero," Collins told him in the seventh.

"I'm not coming out of the game," Santana responded.

Santana ended the game on a full-count changeup to a World Series MVP, David Freese, who put a feeble cut on the pitch. The Mets mobbed Santana, sprayed him with champagne, celebrated him as if he'd just seized the championship he came to New York to win.

"To do what he had to do," Collins said, "to have the [shoulder] surgery done and to have people say, 'He's not coming back, his career's over, he'll be just another guy who had surgery.' ...It's an amazing story."

In April, a former Met named Philip Humber threw a perfect game for the Chicago White Sox, the 18th no-hitter in that team's history. At the time, it felt like another practical joke on the Mets; Humber was traded in the deal to obtain Santana.

But Friday night, in the middle of their 51st season, the Mets finally found a pitcher who could make it unscathed from the first inning to the ninth, the five walks be damned. In spring training, Santana said, "We didn't even know if I was going to break camp with the team. We didn't even know if I was going to be ready for Opening Day.

"We've been through a lot of things, but I will never give up."

Santana made that clear at the end of his first season in New York when he pitched a win-or-else classic on one leg. That was the day he introduced himself as a man worthy of ending the drought.

The Mets have been liberated for keeps. So whatever happens over the balance of his career, Santana will be remembered for his resilience, his grit and for a regular-season performance against the St. Louis Cardinals that no $137.5 million contract could buy.