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Santana's debut spoiled by Brewers04/12/2008 6:04 PM ET
By Anthony DiComo / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- It was, the Mets said, the perfect play. Johan Santana was in trouble in the second inning on Saturday, and the Brewers, knowing that much, called on starting pitcher Ben Sheets to bunt. It was a beauty. Hugging the third-base line, the ball rolled too far for catcher Brian Schneider to make a play on it, and not far enough for third baseman David Wright to take a stab.
Santana was the only hope, so with Brewers outfielder Corey Hart dancing down the third-base line, he charged after the ball, turned and whirled. He never even glanced at Hart, who used the opportunity to dash home safely. He might as well have walked.
"I'm not sure of a way to defend that," Schneider said. "It's a tough play."
The run was the first for the Brewers, and perhaps the most innocuous. Yet it was typical of the imperfections that marred this day, an afternoon that saw Santana serve up three home runs, Wright commit two errors and the bats lie dormant in a 5-3 loss.
Merely mortal, Santana kicked the dirt around the pitcher's mound and then walked out of Shea Stadium a loser for the first time in his Mets career. Quite a few boos -- yes, boos -- rained down on Flushing's new hope, providing an unaccustomed welcome to what once might have been a grand debut. This, for Santana, did not feel like home.
"If they boo, that's fine," Santana said. "That's a history they got from not being so good, I guess."
Perhaps, though this remains a franchise with two World Series titles gathering dust, and with an owner -- and a fan base -- who rightfully demand a third. Santana is a large reason why. His contract came with an expectation of excellence, and his track record came with proof that he could deliver. This season was supposed to be a breeze, yet Saturday afternoon proved that perfection doesn't come with any sort of guarantee.
In some ways, the day created a realization of the franchise's fears. The three home runs -- all of them deep, and all of them damaging -- provided a glimpse of what irked him in Minnesota, where he allowed 33 of them last year. Even though he otherwise pitched passably on Saturday, limiting the Brewers to two walks and six additional hits, those home runs conspired to ruin his line. Santana allowed five runs in all -- four of them earned -- leaving after Gabe Kapler's homer cleared the wall in the seventh.
That shot, more than any other, built a basis for the booing.
"I've seen it before," Santana said. "That's not the first time I've seen it happen to a home player. We're not perfect. I wish we could do everything the way everybody wants, but we are human beings. We're going to make mistakes sometimes."
Wright could agree with that, his two errors doing little to aid his pitcher. The second of those gaffes did not hurt Santana. The first of them did.
Wright opened the second inning by throwing Hart's ground ball far wide of the bag, allowing the speedy Brewer to reach base and providing an opportunity for the first run of the game. One walk and one wild pitch later, Hart was on third, and Sheets was at the plate, squaring to bunt. Had Wright charged down the line to field the ball, then Hart could have ventured even further down the third-base line with nobody covering third. The Mets couldn't have tagged him, because his speed -- and the empty third-base bag -- would have allowed him a safe retreat.
So Wright stayed put as best he could, Santana fielded and Hart scored. And lost in the execution was the fact that Wright's original blunder prompted it all.
"It was a bad throw and I missed the ball," Wright said of his two errors. "It's simple."
Further hurting the Mets was the fact that Sheets, who made his more permanent home on the mound, was nearly untouchable. Some early struggles -- Carlos Delgado drilled an RBI double in the first, and Wright added a sacrifice fly -- melted away after Sheets began mowing down the Mets in succession, retiring 18 straight through the middle innings. By the time they touched him again, on Wright's homer in the eighth, the margin for error had grown slim. The Mets brought the tying run to the plate just once.
So they'll move on now, knowing that Santana is set to pitch again in five days. He still recorded two strong starts to open the season, and might not be entirely worthy of his losing record. Yet that, for now, is a New York reality. So are the boos, and so are the unrelenting expectations that this must all improve. The fans demand more, and Santana can provide more. His history created these expectations, and until he fulfills them here, at home, he may just remain a bit out of favor -- however unfair that may be.
"I don't think there's anybody in this clubhouse that hasn't gotten booed yet," Wright said. "That's kind of your rite of passage. If you get booed, you know you're doing something right in the game."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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