Santana smooth when Mets need him most

NEW YORK – This is what Johan Santana was acquired to do. Just when everyone was braced for the New York Mets' demise, he turned dread on its head. He turned fear on its ear.

Any lingering doubts about Santana – his worth, his role, his guts, his heart – were dashed by a three-hit, 117-pitch 2-0 shutout of the Florida Marlins that came Saturday, three days after he had thrown a career-high 125 pitches in a complete-game victory. And the game's magnitude mounted like his pitch count – a loss and the Mets could have been eliminated from playoff contention.

Instead, they will show up Sunday tied with the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL wild-card race, drawing nervous breaths. Former Mets will also be present to celebrate the last regular-season game at 45-year-old Shea Stadium. Compared to the extravagant exhibition staged at the Yankee Stadium farewell a week ago, the Mets' glory days are far fewer and the legendary names pale in comparison, but the nine innings will be infinitely more riveting.

Other descriptions apply to his team. These Mets are alternately revolting and exhilarating, ghastly and grand. They fit in well with the team's uneven lineage.

And the Mets have one man to thank for making Sunday's game meaningful. Yes, it would be the pitcher whose strikeouts are punctuated by the Carlos Santana mega-hit "Smooth," the left-hander general manager Omar Minaya acquired during the offseason after the Yankees and others backed off because they considered the price exorbitant.

Johan Santana, all $137.5 million of him, pitched to his contract Saturday, pitched to his hype, pitched beyond anything his teammates had witnessed this season.

He allowed the Marlins a single in the first inning, a single in the fifth and a double in the ninth. He struck out nine, including two in the ninth, primarily with a devastating changeup that began at a hitter's waist and ended at his shoelaces. He pitched so well that the single runs the Mets scored in the first and fourth might as well have been a dozen.

"How many did he pitch? How many did he throw?" manager Jerry Manuel said with a grin. "Wow, wow, wow, wow. I think if I had to describe that one, I would say that was gangsta. That was real gangsta."

When Manuel tapped Santana's shoulder in the dugout after seven innings as a way of gauging whether his pitcher had anything left in the tank, Santana did not even look at him, staring resolutely onto the field.

"That's the definition of a staff ace," right fielder Ryan Church said. "With the season on the line, on short rest, throwing that many pitches, getting those results. That's an elite, elite pitcher right there."

The performance might have sealed the National League Cy Young Award for Santana, who weeks ago was hardly in the conversation. He is 9-0 with a 2.09 ERA in his last 17 starts. He is 16-7 with 206 strikeouts and easily could have 20 or more wins if the Mets' bullpen hadn't morphed into kids in a dry forest striking matches. Santana, who won Cy Young awards with the Minnesota Twins in 2004 and 2006, has a lower ERA than Tim Lincecum, Brandon Webb and Ryan Dempster, and more than twice the NL starts as CC Sabathia.

But awards can wait. So, for that matter, can discussion of the playoffs because the Mets have a tall order Sunday. Without Santana – Manuel's joke that he would start Santana in the finale was just that, a joke – the Mets are reduced to cinder once again. The pervasive sense of foreboding that blanketed the Mets the way gray clouds hung over Shea on Saturday? It'll return, along with Ed Kranepool and Cleon Jones, Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, Keith Hernandez, Bud Harrelson and, word has it, Willie Mays.

Memories of the 1969 Amazin's, the 1973 Yogi Berra-led NL pennant winners and the 1986 juggernaut that dashed Red Sox's dreams will give way to a game with plenty on the line, including the answer to the question: Will this be the last game played at Shea Stadium?

Manuel will hand the ball to enigmatic left-hander Oliver Perez, who is as unpredictable as Santana is dependable. Perez has a live arm – sometimes so live he has no idea where the ball is going. Perez is fearless – sometimes so fearless he will try to blow a fastball past a power hitter on a 2-0 count and nearly get whiplash watching the ball sail into the seats. But he also is capable of dominance. Two months ago, he held the same Marlins he'll face Sunday scoreless over seven innings; three weeks ago, he gave up seven runs in 3 1/3 innings to the hapless Washington Nationals.

The best hope for Perez? He watched every pitch Santana threw Saturday, took the performance to heart and listened to what Santana said afterward: "I never thought about my pitch count or the short rest. There was a lot on this game. This was a situation we had to win. A game like this, you raise it up, you take care of business and help the team win."