Santana accomplishes what history -- 8,019 games -- told us might not be possible

Of the 8,019 previous games started by a Mets pitcher before the magnificent, rebuilt Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in Mets history Friday night, almost exactly 2,000 of those games were started by a combination of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden, Al Leiter, Jon Matlack, David Cone, Gary Gentry, Frank Viola, Pedro Martinez and Nolan Ryan.

That no one in this long line of great and near-great pitchers ever threw a no-hitter for the Mets -- not once in 50 years and two months of games -- was truly one of the most amazing streaks in sports, perhaps more amazing than the Joe DiMaggio hit streak or any other more glorious streak in history. This is a franchise as rich with terrific pitchers as almost any other, and this strange, unreal inability to achieve one-game glory hung over the organization, casting a bizarre half-century pall.

Santana, who's from Venezuela by way of Houston and Minnesota, understood its significance right away, telling the fans at Citi Field by microphone right after it was over and he had no-hit the World Champion Cardinals that this one was for them, the fans. Santana and everyone in that stadium understood that the lack of a no-hitter was one of the most famous things about the Mets' occasionally glorious but often bumpy history.

"It's an honor,'' Santana said to the press later. "I know how much this means to New York and to the New York Mets."

Manager Terry Collins teared up later when he hugged Santana, and again when he addressed the media. When Santana got to the clubhouse, he received an ovation from his teammates, so grateful to be a small part of the occasion.

"Tonight, we all made history,'' Santana told his teammates in the clubhouse. "You guys make it happen.''

Santana was being characteristically generous, but a major assist does go to outfielder Mike Baxter, the gritty Whitestone, Queens native who threw his own shoulder into the left field fence to take a sure double away from the Cardinals' Yadier Molina in the seventh inning. Baxter is the one current Met who grew up in the shadows of Willets Point, where Citi Field stands, so he understood the history better than anyone else. And he risked his well-being to change it.

"I'm OK,'' Baxter kept telling the media afterward, as if to say any possible injury was worth the risk. Santana, with his own rebuilt shoulder, told Collins he was not coming out of the game, no matter what, even as the pitch counts blew past 115 pitches, then past his career-high 125, eventually settling at 134. Collins worried afterward about how Santana might feel five days from now, understandably.

But nothing was going to stop Santana, least of all his own dewy-eyed manager. For one night Santana lifted a surprising and tough young team, a borough and even a city by accomplishing something so many great Mets pitchers could not do. At least not while in New York. Seaver, Leiter, Gooden and Cone are among the almost unbelievable 13 ex-Mets to have thrown no-hitters elsewhere. Hell, Gooden and Cone did it in stays later in their career with the crosstown rival New York Yankees, who enjoyed those gems but didn't need them like the Mets needed this.

There was a feeling of disbelief that a team with so many great pitchers could go five decades without a single no-hitter, that the team could have 35 one-hitters yet not a single no-no. Tom Seaver's perfect game try against the Cubs in 1969, a game every kid of the '60s in New York recalls vividly (I know I do), was broken up by little-known outfielder Jim Qualls after 8 1/3, the most famous pitched game in Mets history. Until now.

The last time a Mets pitcher even carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning was way back in 1975, when Seaver pitched 8 2/3 scorless innings before allowing a hit. Forever it seems, there has been disbelief among keen Mets aficionados that it had never been done before. Howie Rose, the great Mets radio man, wrote the number of Mets games on the top of all of his scorecards before each game, reminding himself of the unbelievable: "8,020'' he wrote this time. So he knew without having to go to the record book.

And in a way, there was an equal level of disbelief that it finally happened.

After all that's happened to the Mets in their history, Mets followers would naturally assume that maybe a Mets killer like Molina would spoil it. Or that maybe it would be ex-Met Carlos Beltran who would ruin it. (Beltran did hit a liner that appeared to hit chalk but was fortuitously called foul.)

Jim Duquette, the former Mets general manager who happened to call this game as a fill-in from the radio booth, said, "You were conditioned to think that it would never happen.''

Of all the things Santana accomplished, the best may be that he got longtime Mets followers to rethink what's possible.

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