PHILADELPHIA – Johan Santana is not like everyone else in the New York Mets' clubhouse, no matter how much he craves to be. He is supposed to be an ace, and he needs to bag the humility and start acting like one.
In the afterglow of a 6-3 victory Wednesday night against Philadelphia that vaulted the Mets back into first place in the National League East, they seemed to forget the win followed a pedestrian performance by Santana. Here was the exact situation that prompted the Mets to trade four prospects for his rights, then give him the richest contract in history for a pitcher, and in the end, he's the one in need of the lifeboat.
Such things happen, and were Santana not so laissez-faire about his role and his responsibility – so patently dismissive of his duty to dominate – it would have been just another game. Problem is, Santana does not yet seem to understand that with a $137.5 million contact in your pocket and the words New York striped across your chest, attitude and swagger are requisite. The entire concept of team needs to be put on hold, because aces win games by themselves.
"I'm not trying to be a hero or anything," Santana said. "No. Not at all. I'm realistic. And reality is, I cannot do everything. But I know what I'm capable of doing, and I trust all my teammates."
Two lockers down from Santana, Pedro Martinez listened. Martinez was a true ace, one who frothed for the big moment, delivered regularly and bore every ounce of responsibility when he didn't. Certainly you remember the time when he called the Yankees "my daddy." Martinez understood that there is the ace, the guy who puts up great numbers, and the ace, the one who does so in games big and small – the one in his own category, the rarest of sorts.
"Greatness," Martinez said. "Greatness is a very different thing. It's not an empty word. You can't describe it. You have to live it. You have to understand it. You have to go through every little task you can go through. And then you really realize it."
And Santana, for his two Cy Young Awards and an ERA this year (2.70) hovering around his career best, is not that kind of great, not yet.
"He's halfway," Martinez said. "It takes a little more time. A few years still."
Santana, 29, has all of the physical characteristics to reach it. He reminds Martinez of himself in his prime: the live fastball, the unfair changeup, the breaking ball that's an extra ladle of gravy. Strike-throwers and intimidators, thinkers and winners.
What separated Martinez – what separates all the greats – is the mentality that accompanies each start. On Tuesday night, following the Mets' toughest loss of the season – one in which they blew a 7-0 lead and lost 8-7 in 13 innings – Santana stood by his locker with a stoic façade. Nearly every other Met sulked. Santana wouldn't crack, and when asked whether his role was to help the Mets forget about such games, he answered in neither the affirmative nor the negative.
"I do my job," he said.
Santana's workmanlike attitude is something on which he prides himself, as is his ability to plow all emotion out of a situation. In many ways, this behooves him. He doesn't scare easily. Little flusters him. He could well be a Buckingham Palace guard. After giving up two home runs that staked Philadelphia a 3-2 lead, Santana worked himself into a two-on, no-out jam in the sixth inning. He escaped it with aplomb, striking out the last batter he faced.
At the same time, Santana's attitude neuters any ability to properly qualify games. The most important start of his career as a Met came Wednesday, with the loss fresh in their minds and the history of last season's collapse creeping back, and the 24 Mets not named Santana figured him the remedy to both.
"You get a little spoiled when he's pitching," said first baseman Carlos Delgado, the real hero of the night – and the Mets' resurgence – with two home runs. "We understand he cannot be perfect all the time. But those guys make a lot of money because they can do things other people can't. They stop the bleeding. They save the bullpen. They stop the losing streak. It goes beyond wins and losses. It goes beyond ERA.
"An ace can go out there and win when things don't go exactly their way. A guy like Johan Santana."
Santana had done that, cruising into the game with 16 consecutive shutout innings and the second-best ERA in the NL. August is his favorite month, too, his career record in it 27-6 and his ERA 2.36. Four times in Minnesota he pitched in stretch-drive games that led to playoff appearances, and never did his tack change.
"It's not just about what I do individually," Santana said. "It's about what we do as a team. Every time you win, it makes you feel good, even though you didn't have your best performance or outing."
Fundamentally, he is right. The Mets will not win their division simply because Santana pitches well. At the same time, they assuredly will not win their division if Santana doesn't pitch well, which ought to be imperative enough for him to embrace his role.
Santana's reticence this deep into his career doesn't bode well. By this juncture, he should hold himself to the same standard his teammates do. He's not just another guy. He can't be.
"The great ones – they completely understand their responsibility that day," Martinez said. "They're trained to do that."
Right now, the Mets have bigger problems than Santana's modesty. They're calling up starter Jon Niese to make his major-league debut during a pennant race and fighting off injury problems and, as manager Jerry Manuel said, "trying to find someone who can pitch the ninth inning."
The Mets think Santana is fine and that he's got the faculties to perform in September and October. Maybe something then will bring out the fire in him, and he'll get what everyone else knows.
He has to be the hero. Greatness is calling.
- the Mets