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YORK -- It could have been Tom Seaver. It could have been Nolan Ryan. But no, it was Johan Santana.
No one better embodies what Mets fans want in their players, and so no one could be better suited to throw the first no-hitter in the 51-season history of this proud but often frustrated franchise. However, Santana has been a bright spot in the past few years -- whenever he's been able to pitch.
And that's the story behind the story here. Pitchers who have shoulder surgery don't tend to come back strong, if they come back at all. Santana himself is not the same pitcher he was before a shoulder operation in 2010, throwing with less velocity and relying less than ever on his signature changeup.
But he's still a pitcher, maybe more a pitcher than ever. He's still a ferocious competitor and a rock of a teammate. The very fact of him pitching in 2012 is a success story in itself. For him to follow a shutout six days earlier with a no-hitter on Friday is surely beyond what nearly anyone could have dreamed or expected in his comeback season.
In short, he earned this. He more than earned it, he suffered for it.
"I knew that the Mets had never had a no-hitter," Santana said. "I never had one. This is very special. We worked very hard. All the things that we have gone through, that I have been through, this is very, very special. And I knew this means a lot to New York."
As it became clearer and clearer that this could be his night, the crowd at Citi Field started allowing itself to imagine Santana ending the drought and delivering the dream. They wanted it because they've wanted it for decades, but they also wanted it for him. Santana had to be the man to pitch the first Mets no-no.
"Certainly, I wanted it for him, wanted it for our organization and all of the people who were here tonight," said manager Terry Collins.
Santana wasn't going to pass up the opportunity. No matter his pitch count, which reached a career-high 134 when he struck out David Freese on a diving changeup, he was going to finish this one.
Collins checked in with his recovering ace, trying to figure out whether to let him finish off the historic gem. Santana had no hesitation. He was going to be the man.
"He came over to me when I was sitting down in the dugout and he told me that I was his hero, and that was the end of it," Santana said. "I told him that I was not coming out of the game."
So the tension built. And make no mistake, while there was a festive air, it was also tense. Mets fans have had their share of disappointment, despite two World Series titles. They were hopeful, but nothing was being taken for granted in Flushing on Friday night.
The buzz started growing in the seventh inning with that extra bit of fervor greeting each out. When Santana came to the on-deck circle to hit for himself in the bottom of the seventh, he was greeted with cheers. The "Jo-han" chants started in the eighth. And by the ninth, not a little fear seemed to set in. It was as though the fans, and even the Mets themselves, started realizing that they had something to lose.
"It was a little nerve-wracking," said outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who caught a tricky fly ball for out No. 26. "We all wanted it so bad for him."
Finally, at 9:48 p.m. ET on a rainy Friday night in Queens, it all gave way to relief and exultation. Fifty-one years of waiting came to an end, thanks to the reconstituted left shoulder of a beloved 33-year-old Venezuelan. No matter what happens in the rest of Santana's career, he has a moment and a central place in Mets lore.
"There were a lot of question marks, me being the same pitcher that I used to be. I didn't know. And I still don't know. But one thing I can tell you: every time I go out there, I'll compete and try to give my team a chance to win. That's the approach I've had my whole career. Whether it's 88, 89, 90, 95 [mph], I don't care. Because I know what it takes to win a ballgame. I know what it takes to help a team to win, and that's what I do."