07/30/09 5:22 PM ET
Santana, Mets cruise to fifth straight
Five-run second backs ace in twin-bill opener vs. Rox
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
Or, in the case of Johan Santana vs. the Rockies on Thursday afternoon, three times through the order.
Before Thursday, none of the 229 starts, 1,673 innings or 25,837 pitches in Santana's big league resume had involved the Rockies. But the two sides were introduced shortly after noon ET, and what followed was support for the notion that unfamiliarity breeds confusion.
The unknown pitcher buried the Rockies for seven innings in what became the Mets' fifth consecutive victory, a 7-0 trouncing of a team that had won three straight series and put itself ahead in the race for the Wild Card in the National League.
With Santana participating in a shutout for the fourth time this season, the Mets continued their widely unexpected reversal, winning the first game of the day-night doubleheader and putting this four-game series in their favor regardless of the outcome of the second game.
Whatever concerns New York might have had regarding Santana were defused, to some degree. His strikeout rate down, and his ERA up, he had been something less than dominant in recent weeks. But the performance he delivered in his 21st start was comparable to any of the 10 starts he made in April and May when he ruled the league with his changeup, fastball and savvy.
Santana provided seven handsome innings, allowing merely four hits and a walk. Moreover, he struck out eight -- more, by at least three, than he had in any of his previous 10 starts. Santana put his record at 12-8 and his ERA at 2.96, winning for the third time in six starts.
He has pitched seven scoreless innings in five games, one of which was not a team shutout. The Mets have pitched eight shutouts, including their past two games. The last time they pitched back-to-back shutouts was last year -- against the Rockies -- on July 12 and 13. Their streak of scoreless innings was extended to 22 by Bobby Parnell and Tim Redding, who pitched one inning each after Santana departed.
Santana threw 104 pitches, 73 for strikes. In effect, he challenged the team with the second-most runs in the league to a game of "Let 'em hit it," and then broke the rules. A 70-percent strike ratio is uncommonly high. And Santana was uncommonly effective. The Rockies, who have lost 21 of their past 23 games at Shea Stadium or Citi Field, had two runners on base in two innings. Santana pitched four clean innings, striking out his final two batters in the 1-2-3 seventh.
The ace did most of his work with a wide margin for error. The Mets scored five times in the second inning against losing pitcher Jason Hammel (5-6). The rally included five successive hits that preceded the first out. A double by Daniel Murphy, singles by Jeff Francoeur, Cory Sullivan and Omir Santos and a double by Angel Berroa produced New York's most productive inning since June 7.
"When you're dealing with a starter of Johan Santana's stature, you can ill afford to have an inning like we had in the second," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. "You can't spot that guy five runs. ... You've dug a hole for yourself that's close to being impossible to climb out of. The task was monumental once they got the five runs in the second inning."
Moreover, Santana was an unknown quantity to the Rockies.
"You gear up for the fastball against guys you do know," Alex Cora said. "That's what makes anyone's changeup hard to pick up. And Johan has that changeup."
"And everyone's so aware of the changeup because it's so good," David Wright said, "that when he comes inside with his fastball, he's got 'em."
Santana's fastball had more uuuumpth than it has had of late -- he touched 94 mph twice -- and beyond that, plate umpire Sam Holbrook "gave" Santana the inside corner, as he had not done in the pitcher's start against Nationals on May 27. Santana walked six in six innings in that game, but won nonetheless. Holbrook, it should be noted, also worked the plate when Santana shut out the Marlins in the Mets' 161st game last season.
"When I get the inside corner," Santana said, "it opens everything up."
The change in strike zone was not a topic he enjoyed discussing. The less said, the better. Santana said his command and the movement of his pitches -- both better than they had been -- were the critical components. Also noteworthy is that the rainout that caused the doubleheader also afforded him an extra day of rest. But he doesn't like to acknowledge the benefits of extra rest, either.
"We had a chance to take the series if I won," Santana said. "So I just set out to win."
He likes to make it seem simple. And sometimes it looks that way, too.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.