After all, if it wasn’t for the Marlins, the Mets might not have coveted Santana so much.
Go back to the final day of the 2007 season. The Mets were tied with the Phillies for the NL East lead heading into a matchup with last-place Florida. Ace left-hander Tom Glavine gave up seven runs in one-third of an inning against the Marlins, a fitting end to New York’s epic collapse that handed Philadelphia the division title.
A seven-game lead was blown in the season’s final 17 outings, World Series hopes were swiftly gone, and New York’s brass spent the next few weeks figuring ways to get better.
Now the Mets’ pennant hopes are pinned to another lefty, a two-time Cy Young Award winner in Santana. When the season opens Monday in South Florida, he knows all eyes will be looking his way.
“It’s another opening day, but at the same time, I’m very excited,” said Santana, who was 93-44 in parts of eight seasons with the Minnesota Twins and wound up signing a $137.5 million, six-year contract with New York—the most money ever for a pitcher. “New uniform, a lot of expectations and I’m very happy for it. Hopefully everything will go the way everybody wants.”
In some respects, life with Santana is already paying off for the Mets.
New York hasn’t totally shaken off the effects of that freefall a year ago, but some, including third baseman David Wright, believe Santana’s arrival provided a buffer this spring from what could have been a constant state of questions about what went wrong last September.
“We’ve gotten the opportunity to split that up,” Wright said, “with what to expect in 2008 with Johan.”
And they expect something special from Santana, who has 983 strikeouts since 2004—139 more than any other pitcher in baseball over that stretch.
“He’s one of the best pitchers in the game,” Mets manager Willie Randolph said before his team worked out at the Marlins’ home ballpark Sunday. “Obviously we take the wraps off and we get a chance to see a great pitcher work, but the beauty of it that he’s going to be there every fifth day for me. So every day is a good day.”
Santana will make $19 million this season.
The Marlins’ entire 25-man roster won’t make that much in 2008.
So clearly, there’s a mild difference in the perceived expectations for the two clubs. But penny-pinching Florida—coming off a 71-91 season and now without Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera, traded away to Detroit—still has a team that believes it can surprise, and knows facing Santana on Monday is a great opportunity to show that, if only for one day.
“Right up there with the Miggy and Dontrelle trade, the signing of Santana was probably the biggest (personnel) news in baseball,” Marlins outfielder Cody Ross said Sunday. “Everybody’s going to wonder how he’s going to do and everybody’s going to be watching. There’s a lot of Mets fans down here and they’re pumped he’s on that team now.”
The Mets and Marlins played some emotionally charged games to finish last season; John Maine nearly no-hit Florida in a 13-0, fight-filled matchup on the next-to-last day of 2007, and the Marlins weren’t shy about saying how much that fired them up to doom New York’s playoff chances on the final afternoon.
“Those games were fun for the guys and I told those guys at the end last year that I was so proud of them,” Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I don’t know if it’ll carry over or not.”
The Marlins and the National League might be new to Santana, but opening day isn’t.
He started the opener for Minnesota each of the past two seasons, going 1-1: He lost to Toronto 6-3 two years ago, then beat Baltimore 7-4 last season.
There will be jitters, he acknowledged, but his spring was strong and Santana believes he’s ready to go.
“When I cross those lines, I’ll be fine,” Santana said. “I’ll know exactly what I have to do. I know there’s going to be a lot of people watching, a lot of people expecting a lot of things and hopefully we’ll exceed all those expectations. But I’m not going to try to do anything crazy. I’m just going to be myself and enjoy everything out there.”