PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.—The Mets certainly hope that last night’s events serve as foreshadowing of the 2008 season.
In front of a sellout crowd at Tradition Field, Johan Santana quickly took command of the game against the Orioles in the first inning. A recent criticism leveled by former major leaguer Jack Morris is that Santana is relying too much on his change-up. And considering that a change-up is merely a slow fastball, such a pattern could be problematic.
But Santana consistently set the tone for at-bats with a fastball that showed no reduction in velocity from his best outings.
Luke Scott, a formidable fastball hitter, fell victim to a high heater to end the top of the first inning. And even when Santana fell behind, as he did to Jay Payton in the second, he returned to the fastball to induce the out.
It was instructive to see him battle against Guillermo Quieroz, Orioles catching prospect, in the third as well. After getting ahead, Quieroz was able to lay off a pair of sinkers on each side of the plate. But Santana’s change-up simply froze Quieroz, one of seven strikeouts on the night.
“I threw some sinkers, but the fastball really allowed me to get hitters out tonight,” Santana said after the game to a herd of reporters. Fellow Mets stars David Wright and Jose Reyes walked by unmolested. “I know if I do what needs to be done, I’ll be ready for opening day.”
The pitching was only part of the show. In the third, Santana, a lifetime .258 hitter, got to the plate. He took an outside strike, fouled a fastball off, then laced a curveball into the right-center-field gap for a double, providing evidence of why he insisted his contract with the Mets include a bonus for a Silver Slugger Award.
He even provided a base-running highlight. The next hitter was Jose Reyes, who singled through the hole in right field. As Santana tried to score, Reyes tried to stretch the single into a double. Reyes was thrown out at second for the third out of the inning, and Santana’s run would not have counted if he hadn’t been hustling around the bases—but Santana crossed the plate first.
The experience was a relatively new one for Santana, who didn’t get many opportunities to hit in the designated-hitter-infested American League.
“That is the toughest thing to do as a pitcher, to run the bases, and then go out there and pitch,” Santana said. “I got to the mound, and it was tough—but once the inning started, I knew I was prepared for these kinds of things.”
The third inning would prove to be the last time Baltimore would challenge Santana. Adam Jones was frozen by a fastball, then a change, but did not chase a 3-2 fastball out of the zone. Santana got ahead of the next hitter, Luis Hernandez, but the light-hitting shortstop flailed at a 2-2 outside fastball and dumped a double into left. That brought up Luke Scott again. And once again, on a 2-2 count, Santana went not to the change-up, but to the fastball. Scott had no chance, watching it go by for the third out of the inning.
Normally during a Mets game, fans will get up following the home half of the frame—they don’t want to miss the Mets’ at-bat. But overwhelmingly, bathroom and hot dog breaks took place following the visitor’s turn at bat—everyone knew Santana was the show. Wright was due up second, Beltran third—but nobody wanted to miss seeing Johan Santana pitch to Brandon Fahey.
By the fifth, Baltimore’s at-bats were a tableau of resignation. Anyone who saw Santana do the same thing to the 2007 Mets last season at Shea Stadium recognized the signs. Sliders in the dirt were hacked at, at-bats got quicker and quicker. These were not lazy batters. They simply realized they weren’t going to hit Santana.
“Spring training is for you to get ready,” Santana said. “As for now, I feel good. I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
The Mets, who haven’t had a pitcher of Santana’s caliber in roughly 20 years, certainly agree.
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