By Rich Coutinho
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I remember sitting by Johan Santana’s locker in Port St. Lucie after a bunch of reporters had questioned him about his left shoulder. Without even asking a question, he said to me, “It is the competition I miss so much — facing that hitter man-to-man and getting the best of him.”

That was refreshing to hear. We all know baseball players make tons of money. But when the dust clears, it’s the competition that drives them to reach their potential.

Think about the day the Mets had: their 4-0 start had become 8-8 after a doubleheader sweep by the Giants on Monday. They came to the ballpark and found out both Jason Bay and Mike Pelfrey would be headed to the disabled list. They needed something — or someone — to grab this team by the scruff of its neck and pull them through their first crisis of 2012.

Oh, by the way, this all on the day Jose Reyes returned to Citi Field in a Marlins uniform — but it mattered little to Santana. That’s the way ace pitchers are programmed.

Make no mistake about it, Johan has pitched like an ace in his first four starts of the season despite getting hammered in Atlanta a week ago. In his three starts at Citi Field, he has allowed just two earned runs in 16.2 innings of work. Even though the Mets have yet to score a run for him, his Mets teammates have won two of those three games because he has kept his team in the game.

“Our offense will come around,” said Santana, “because that is just the ups and downs of baseball. The main thing for me is to do my job and keep our opponents off the board.”

I have told you all offseason, the reason I think the Mets will finish north of .500 will prove to be the presence of Santana and what he means to this team. Already he has faced Tommy Hanson, Stephen Strasburg and Josh Johnson. The Mets have won two of those games. That’s a big reason why New York is  8-5 in a division most said they could not compete in on a night-by-night basis. They have a 5-2 record against those NL East teams here at Citi Field.

That is the greatness of Santana, and why I thought a 77-win team in 2011 would eclipse the .500 mark in 2012.

All this on a night Mets fans were planning to lament Reyes’ arrival at Citi Field in a Marlins uniform. But they all missed the point — they should have been grateful Santana was wearing the blue and orange.

That No. 57 uniform was on the mound Tuesday to steady a team that had been punched in the stomach twice in the past 24 hours. It’s very comforting to know Mets fans will see that every fifth day this season.

It might just make for an interesting summer at Citi Field.

What kind of an impact would you say Santana has had on the Mets? Be heard in the comments below…

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