Johan Santana jogged up the dugout steps Saturday afternoon, tipped his cap and waved at fans as he twirled around, soaking up the appreciative applause that began once a montage of highlights started playing on Citi Field's big video screen.
Santana finally could take it all in after being immersed in his amazing accomplishment about 16 hours earlier. After missing all of last season while recovering from September 2010 shoulder surgery and fielding constant queries about his health, he silenced any doubters Friday night when he tossed the first no-hitter in the history of the franchise, merely 50-plus seasons and 8,020 games into its existence.
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"When I was rehabbing last year, I was just working hard to come back," Santana said Saturday. "I've been doing everything one step at a time and there have been a lot of question marks around me, whether it's velocity, whether it's 'Can he compete again?' I've got my heart and I know how to do my thing. I know how to compete. I'll always find a way to compete."
That's precisely why Santana wasn't going to let manager Terry Collins pry the ball from his hands, not after that long, interstate-like path he had to travel to start toeing the rubber for the Mets again. See, Santana never had hurled a no-hitter in his life -- not even playing a video game -- and he wasn't about to let Collins give him the hook just because his pitch count neared 115, the limit Collins had in his head.
"I've been through a lot, and to have an opportunity like last night, it was unbelievable, maybe once in a lifetime," said Santana, who threw a career-high 134 pitches with five walks and eight strikeouts in the Mets' 8-0 win over the Cardinals. "You can spend your whole career [trying] and never have a chance to do it. Right when I had that opportunity, there was no way that I'll come out. It's something that might never happen again. I was just trying to get it done."
But in allowing Santana to get it done, Collins had to go against his better judgment, possibly sacrificing Santana's long-term health. Collins and team officials will decide if their ace should get an extra day (or days) off before his next outing.
Santana said he felt good Saturday. But with two consecutive shutouts, he's pitched 18 innings in his last two starts, and Collins doesn't want to burn out such an integral piece of the Mets' puzzle with two-thirds of the season remaining.
"We're talking about it; it's back-to-back complete games, let alone the no-hitter," Collins said. "We're going to talk. Today, he's still wound up with adrenaline. So we'll wait until that's out and see how he's feeling. Right now, there's a real plan to back him up a day or two."
Santana, 33, seemed totally fine with that idea. He is, after all, the oldest pitcher to throw a no-hitter since Randy Johnson's perfect game at age 40 against the Braves in 2004. He's also only the third non-rookie in the past 50 years to throw a no-hitter after not pitching in the majors the previous season.
"I feel fine, but definitely the next couple of days are going to be important to see how I recover and when I'm going to throw my bullpen," Santana said. "If we have to take an extra day, there's nothing wrong with that. Terry and all the staff, they know what they are doing, and we are going to do what's best for all of us. If that means taking an extra day, there's nothing wrong with that."
Nor is quenching the fans' thirst for that elusive no-no.
"When I won my first Cy Young, it was very special because it meant a lot not just to me but my whole country," the native Venezuelan said. "This one last night was very special because I knew Mets fans were waiting for it. To happen like this, it was very nice. It's a very special moment."