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05/21/09 4:01 AM ET

Simply the best? Johan making his case

Mets southpaw on pace for greatest season of his career

LOS ANGELES -- Among active pitchers, Johan Santana ranks 28th in career wins, one ahead of Russ Ortiz, five behind the enigmatic Chan Ho Park. That is more a product of his years as a reliever than of his frustrations during 41 starts with the Mets. But it is an interesting place to be.

It seems Santana, considered by many to be the best pitcher in baseball, is at a crossroads in his career. Now nearly three weeks into May, Santana -- 5-2 with a 1.36 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 53 innings -- remains on pace for the most statistically impressive season of his life.

His baseball legacy may depend on how he fares.

At 30, Santana could have a decade or so of big league pitching left in him, with goals to achieve and records to approach. The next half-dozen years should determine whether Santana will ever have a chance to make the Hall of Fame, to win 300 games, to become an October icon. He is at the zenith of a career that should one day be defined primarily by his time with the Mets.

"I might have a chance to make something special," was how Santana put it.

Yet it seems so foreign for a player to go about the business of making history in as understated a manner as Santana has. He is boring, the baseball equivalent of beige paint and white bread. Aside from an otherworldly changeup, he boasts no particularly distinguishing features.

Roger Clemens was known for his bluster; Randy Johnson for his six feet and 10 inches. Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were known for their artful pitching styles; Pedro Martinez for both his ego and some of the finest seasons in the history of the game.

Yet Santana is known for none of that. He has never struck out 300 batters in a season, nor come particularly close. He has never been known for gesticulations or primal screams on the mound. He has never thrown a baseball 100 miles per hour, and he has never won a World Series. Indeed, he has never even played in a Fall Classic.

He has never made the cover of a tabloid magazine. He has never hit a home run. He has never been suspended. He has never tested positive for steroids. He has never demanded a trade. He has never earned a nickname.

He has never, in short, done any of the things that today's athletes do, clutching the spotlight either through careful manipulation or unwanted publicity.

Instead, Santana has pitched.

"I learned one thing -- I don't show my emotions," Santana said. "But believe me, when I'm there, I let everybody know I'm there by throwing the ball. Not by making faces."

On the mound, he is tame. Santana has hit 32 batters in his career, an average of one per 50 innings. Martinez and Johnson have posted career rates roughly 60 percent higher.

"He's not the imposing figure that they are, but he has the stuff that they had," Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield said of Santana. "That overrides everything. Look at his size -- he's like a left-handed Pedro Martinez."

Hitters, Sheffield said, simply don't fear Santana the way they did Martinez or Johnson. And Santana's reputation is hardly one of unparalleled skill -- in a recent poll of Major Leaguers, he was named the best pitcher in the game about as frequently as Roy Halladay or Josh Beckett.

Stories of Santana's real demeanor -- the one he hides from the public -- are true. No sooner had he taken a seat in AT&T Park's visiting clubhouse last weekend than three other Mets sidled over to join him. Before long, seven players and coaches were all huddled around Santana, cackling in Spanish and drawing the curiosity of the rest of the room.

A day later, at Dodger Stadium, it was the same thing. Within minutes of challenging Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello to a game of arcade baseball, Santana had drawn an audience of four Mets players and a nearby clubhouse attendant. He has the popularity of a prom king in Queens.

Perhaps that's because Santana is the best pitcher in baseball today, perhaps not.

Santana's fame in the United States still pales compared to that in his native Venezuela. "He's more popular than Hugo Chavez," teammate and countryman Francisco Rodriguez joked. And that's for good reason -- with five more victories, Santana will break the recently retired Freddy Garcia's record for career wins among Venezuelan natives.

But unlike Garcia, Santana is hardly finished.

"I'm 30 years old right now," he said. "If I play until I'm 45, I still have 15 years to go."

If he plays until he's 45, he'll also have achieved something rare. Santana's build, as Sheffield noted, is rather similar to that of Martinez -- short and slim. Though Santana is thicker and stronger in his upper body than Martinez ever was, his build hardly inspires the notion that he can pitch well into his 40s.

Then again, his pitching style puts him at an advantage. Despite possessing high velocity, Santana does not lean on it. His best trait is his changeup, a pitch that Martinez and Trevor Hoffman and Jamie Moyer have proven can still be effective even after some of that velocity disappears.

"You still have to have something to change off of," Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "But you look at a guy like Trevor Hoffman. He used to be throwing 95 with his changeup, and now he's throwing 85 with the same changeup and still succeeding. I foresee Santana being able to do the same thing."

Imagine the implications if he can. As Johnson approaches his 300th victory, many are contending that the mark will never be reached again -- echoes of an argument that became popular when Glavine won his 300th in 2007.

But consider this: heading into his age-30 season, Johnson had precisely 68 victories to his credit. Glavine had 124. The key to their historic success was not what they did in their mid-20s, or even what they did throughout the primes of their careers -- victories are too dependent upon luck and circumstance for even the best pitchers to record more than 25 or so in a season.

Instead, Johnson and Glavine reached the 300-win plateau by avoiding major injuries and pitching effectively into their 40s. On a steamy Chicago night, Glavine won his 300th game at the age of 41. And Johnson is on the cusp of reaching the mark at the age of 45. All of which means that Santana -- despite a career that didn't begin rolling until his mid-20s -- is not too far off the required pace.

"To think ahead is too much, because you don't know," said Santana, now with 114 wins to his credit. "The big, big, big thing in baseball is that you've got to stay healthy."

Healthy and good. The key for Santana will be his ability to reinvent himself once his fastball fades from the mid-90s to the lower 90s, and eventually to something less. Martinez was able to do so remarkably well, but could not balance the other half of the equation -- health.

Santana, according to Warthen, seems well equipped for both.

"Because of his delivery, because of the ease with which he throws and his intelligence -- yeah, he's a guy that can pitch into his 40s. Although he'll lose a little velocity, I think he'll still be able to pitch with it."

In the interim, he'll work to retain his foothold at the top of the game. Among today's top pitchers, Santana may not possess Beckett's fastball or Halladay's efficiency. But, quietly, he has been just as effective.

"Put his numbers against anybody, and you get the answer," Rodriguez said.

But Santana is not about to start comparing himself to Johnson or Maddux just yet.

"They're simply the best in the game," Santana said. "I'm just in the making. I still have a long way to go."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.