By Rich Coutinho
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NEW YORK (WFAN) — Johan Santana strode to the mound on Opening Day with one thing on his mind — give his team a chance to win the game.
How he did that is another story as his five scoreless innings were the culmination of many hours of rehab that he endured through for the past 12 months.
“All I ever thought about was getting back to this mound and being with my teammates,” Santana said. “And today I was pretty excited having fun competing against a tough Brave team.”
For his Met teammates, Santana means more than that because aside from his pitching prowess he brings an energy to the clubhouse that is hard to miss.
“Johan really enjoys life and he is constantly pumping up his teammates,” said Mets’ third baseman David Wright, “And he is the type of guy that lifts up the entire room with his positive attitude and fiery competitiveness.”
Let’s talk about that for a minute — “fiery competitiveness” is something I’ve always admired about Santana. I did not see it until that cool autumn day in 2008 when he nearly pulled the Mets through the fire with a complete game shutout during the last weekend of the season. And oh by the way, on a torn meniscus that needed surgery.
It was the type of performance that would have become legendary had the Mets made the playoffs in 2008, but it has always resonated with me and that is what makes Santana a superstar.
Now there is still a long way to go in this season and I am sure Johan will have to clear many more hurdles, but the way he handled the Braves for five innings is the best sign this organization has received in a long time. Even when he struggled with his command, Santana fought through it, getting a big out when he needed it. That is what an ace does.
Another thing an ace does is take the pressure off other pitchers in the rotation and whether he will do that for this group remains to be seen. But the consensus in the clubhouse is that he will.
“We all know the pedigree of Santana,” said R.A. Dickey, “but I think what we sometimes forget is how dominant he can be and that could take a toll on opposing lineups in a series. For me, it fits right into my whole game plan and having my knuckleball follow a Santana start could be pretty tough on other teams.”
For Mike Pelfrey, the presence of Santana has produced better results for him when you consider that his ERA is almost a run lower when Johan is in the rotation. Pitchers like Dillon Gee and Jonathan Niese will also benefit from having a hurler like Santana around because he sets up hitters rather than overpowering them.
“Nothing surprises me about Johan Santana,” said manager Terry Collins, “because he is such a tireless worker and couples that with a competitiveness fire that is incredible.”
That is why everybody in the organization contends that his return is the biggest reason why Met fans should be optimistic.
And for one day at Citi Field, they got their wish. Only time will tell if that feeling is lasting or fleeting.