In year 51, in game 8,020, in ballpark 3, the New York Mets have a no-hitter of their own.
Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in franchise history Friday night, the 275th in major-league history, and New Yorkers at Citi Field celebrated a moment more than a half-century coming, through the likes of Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Doc Gooden, Frank Viola, David Cone and equally capable pitchers.
But it was Santana, the Venezuelan-born left-hander, the two-time Cy Young Award winner whose career was threatened by major shoulder surgery in 2010. He stood on the mound after a grueling 134 pitches against the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, punched his glove, raised his fists and became the first with an 8-0 Met win.
"Amazing," Santana said afterward. "I mean, coming into this season I was just hoping to come back, stay healthy and help the team."
Turning to the crowd still stirring at the three-year-old ballpark in Queens, he said, "I'm very happy for you guys. Finally, the first one."
In true Mets tradition, it was actually a one-hitter.
Former Met Carlos Beltran hit a low line drive in the sixth inning that struck the foul-line chalk just beyond the third-base bag. Umpire Adrian Johnson called it foul. The Cardinals argued to no avail.
"There's times when one play makes the whole difference, one calls makes the whole difference," Santana said. "And tonight it was that call."
On the following pitch, Beltran grounded out to third base.
An inning later, the one play that really made the difference arrived. Mets left fielder Mike Baxter, born and raised in the Queens neighborhood of Whitestone, saved the no-hitter with a lunging catch of a long fly ball by Yadier Molina. Baxter crashed into the left-field wall and left the game with an apparent shoulder injury.
It would all be folded into Mets lore, a place of great and exhausting failure, and of the occasional Amazin'. The absence of a no-hitter symbolized for Mets fans the franchise's broader futility, particularly given the many quality pitchers who had gone through the organization. Only the San Diego Padres, born in 1969, seven years after the Mets, are without a no-hitter.
The Mets had been close before.
Since 1962, the Mets had thrown 35 one-hitters. Ten pitchers had thrown no-hitters before coming to the Mets and seven had thrown no-hitters after leaving the Mets. The Mets themselves had been no-hit six times.
This, into the teeth of history and through the winds of controversy, would be the night.
Santana, 33, missed all of last season recovering from shoulder surgery. Upon his return, many doubted he could be the pitcher who'd dominated lineups for the better part of eight seasons for the Minnesota Twins and, after signing a $137.5-million contract, the Mets. He'd make just his 11th start following the surgery Friday against the Cardinals, one for which Mets manager Terry Collins said Santana would be limited to 110, maybe 115 pitches.
So, in the later innings, the drama of the historical no-hitter became entwined with the long-term well being of Santana, the former franchise pitcher who, given time and innings, could be again.
"It's very exciting," Collins said afterward. "But if, in five days, his arm his bothering him, I'm not going to feel very good. … I just couldn't take him out. I just couldn't do it. So, we'll wait five days and see how it is."
In the seventh, Collins had come to Santana in the dugout, both of them with the no-hitter on their minds, along with the rising pitching count.
"You're my hero," Collins told his pitcher.
Santana sort of knew what he was getting at.
"I told him," Santana said, "I was not coming out of the game."
He finished the eighth inning having thrown 122 pitches. With a taut jaw and mixed emotions, Collins sent him out for what would become 12 more. Matt Holliday flied to center field, Allen Craig flied to left and, on a full-count changeup, David Freese struck out.
The Mets rushed to Santana at the mound. In the dugout, they covered him in champagne. And then in the clubhouse Santana reminded them, "We did this together. We, as a team, made history tonight."
It is Santana, however, who would be remembered most. Like all those Mets teams before his, Santana was a little wild at times and a little unsettling at others. He walked five Cardinals. His fastball was occasionally unreliable. He leaned hard on his changeup, among the best in the game. And, just like those other Mets teams, Santana was easy to root for. He'd come so far since the surgery. Even in spring training he was unsure if he would open the season with the team, if his recovery had come far enough to test every five days in the big leagues.
From that was born one of the great nights to be a Met, and to be a Mets fan.
"It's an honor," Santana said. "When I came into this team in 2008, I came here to help this team win a championship. We have been through a lot of things. But, I'll never give up. … I know how much this means to New York and to the New York Mets. It's something I'm proud of and I'm very happy to be a part of it."
He paused for a moment. It'd been more than 50 years in the waiting, going back more than 8,000 games. It didn't seem possible, but this was part of what the Mets dragged along.
"There will be more coming," Santana said.
For a night, it was plenty.
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