By Rich Coutinho
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I said it all offseason and I will say it again — Johan Santana’s performance in 2012 will make or break the Mets season. I believed it then and I believe it now. He is a pitching superstar, and that swagger is very important to a franchise that has not had much to puff their chest out about lately. I have been around Santana since 2008, and there is something about him that is special. We all know he is a great pitcher when healthy, but he is also a man that commands respect because he demands excellence from himself and others. I would even say that if you gave me a choice between a healthy Jose Reyes or a healthy Santana, I’d pick Santana.

“I love everything about this game,” said Santana,”and I mean everything. I love being around the team. I love kidding around with other players. But above all, I love to compete.” That last word is key, because most “experts” think that the Mets can not compete. Santana and I both share the minority view on that one.

“I know this division is tough, but we have good players and I think the experience that the young players got last year is big. Am I excited? Believe it,” said the fiery southpaw.

It is hard being a Mets fan these days with so many distractions, but Santana is an illustration of what’s good about being a Mets fan. Here is a player who is talented but recovering from an injury, and everybody keeps telling him he will never be the same — just as all the experts are telling Mets fans that their team will never contend.

“Our fans are great fans,” said Santana, “because they care, and great players understand that. It kills me that I could not play last year, because playing this game is a gift.”

And so No. 57 continues his quest for Opening Day, but to him that is just the first stop on the 2012 journey.

“Opening Day would be great, but my goals go far beyond that because I must pitch every fifth day and give this team a chance to win. If I do that, we are gonna be just fine”‘ says Santana.

What Santana does is also make everyone in the rotation better, because his very presence will help the other hurlers. The numbers bear it out. Did you know that Mike Pelfrey’s ERA has been almost a run lower when he has pitched with a healthy Santana in the rotation? That is not a coincidence, my friends.

So, Mets fans, take a cue from Santana. Sure the world thinks this season will be a disaster. Sure the experts pick the Mets for last. Even one media member thinks they will lose 100 games. But I am here to tell you that a healthy Santana, a revitalized bullpen and healthy years from Ike Davis, David Wright and Daniel Murphy could really make this a fun summer. But the most important piece to the puzzle is right on schedule. And that should be music to your ears, no matter how many people want to throw cold water on it.

Do the Mets have a chance to succeed this season if Santana isn’t his old Cy Young self? Let us know…

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