By Rich Coutinho
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I know Mets fans are not expecting much from the team this season and I certainly respect and understand that opinion. But baseball is a funny sport.
Nobody expected the Arizona Diamondbacks to rebound from a 90 loss season to win the NL West. Nobody expected the last two World Champions to be squads with under a $100 million payroll. No one expected an AL East team not to be in the World Series the last two years. It is the reason we play the games and it is the reason sports is such great theater.
When teams do the unexpected it generally comes in one of two ways. Young players coming together quicker than was anticipated or veteran players rebounding off sub-par or injury riddled years to make a difference. And that brings us to Johan Santana. In all my years of covering the Mets, I do not know if I ever met anyone like Santana. He is a confident pitcher who understands his responsibility and embraces it. And nobody wants to get back on the mound more than Johan. He has spent the winter moving towards the goal of being ready for Spring Training and my sense is that he will be ready. What can we expect from him? That is hard to say, but consider this: Santana has always been the type of pitcher that wins as much with his mind as his arm. He possesses the best change-up in the league and that will go a long way towards getting him back on track.
But Santana also has a profound influence on the other pitchers in the rotation. Just ask Mike Pelfrey. “I missed having him around last year”, says Pelfrey, “because he has so many great ideas about preparation and devising a game plan. I think what most people lose sight of is that not only is Johan a great pitcher but he studies the opposing hitters so well and talking to him about that on the days we are both not pitching and sitting on the bench for instance is so valuable.”
The very presence of Santana would also allow pitchers like Jonathan Niese, RA Dickey, and Dillon Gee to slot into their proper spots in the rotation, taking enormous pressure off them on the days they start.
More importantly, Johan has a swagger to his game and this team desperately needs that. Mets fans feel so beat up right now (and rightfully so) and having Santana on the hill for Opening Day would be a huge shot in the arm (no pun intended). I will never forget the night the Mets went into Boston a few years ago and Santana outdueled Dice-K. The thing I remember most about that night is Santana hit Kevin Youkilis with a pitch and the Red Sox third sacker stared him down. Johan looked at him and said, “What are you looking at. Take your bleepin base.” And not a peep from the proud Red Sox. In a way, that is what the Mets missed from Santana. Sure, he is an ace and the ability to pitch like one is why the Mets signed him. But he also brings a focus and competitiveness that is contagious in a locker room.
As the Mets try to get Jonathan Niese to the next level, get Mike Pelfrey to return to his form of 2010, and most importantly, prepare for the arrival of guys like Harvey and Wheeler, Santana could be a very valuable connection for those young pitchers. He was here when the Mets mattered in 2008 and he can let the young pitchers know how great a town this is to play in when you are winning. He could also warn them about keeping focus when things are not going so well.
With a revamped bullpen, a healthy and productive Santana coupled with a competent season from Dickey and the continued development of Niese, could make the 2012 season better than you might think. Bringing in the fences will help guys like Wright and Bay and will allow big bats like Davis and Duda to use the “whole field”. But all conversations about the Mets 2012 fortunes, begin and end with #57.
And it would be wise not to count him out because he has proven throughout his career, he is a fighter. And right now, this organization needs him to lead the way. Sure, it is a loaded division and the cards are stacked high against the Mets contending. Every great sports story always begin with a crisis and the Mets are definitely in crisis mode. It is up to the players how they respond to it. Getting Santana back healthy and productive would be a huge step in the right direction.
When will we see Santana on the hill? What impact will he have?