David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Even Bill Parcells knew the Mets were in for a long season when asked about their chances back in spring training. But something else the Big Tuna once said seemed to fit Johan Santana when the Mets decided Monday to keep him in the rotation for at least one more start Thursday against the Rockies.
To paraphrase Parcells, during baseball season, baseball players play baseball, and that's why Santana wanted to be back on the mound, for better or worse, with one caveat: he had to be healthy enough to do it.
As it turned out, that plan lasted for about seven hours.
Minutes after the Mets' 3-1 loss to the Rockies Monday night, manager Terry Collins announced that Santana, whose back suddenly tightened up following up his bullpen session, would have an MRI Tuesday. Just like that, in a sweeping 180-degree turn of events, Santana's season is now likely over -- or should be, in any case.
When asked if this development meant Santana was a scratch for Thursday, Collins tried to hedge, but it was pointless. "Not immediately," Collins said. "Depending on what they come up with [Tuesday] after the MRI and they take a look at it, we may make some changes."
Hey, it was a nice try. Before the game, Santana pretended his recent back stiffness was only a minor issue, barely worth mentioning. Collins and Sandy Alderson insisted he was capable of another start and not at any great risk for serious injury. "I've been through a lot this year -- a lot," Santana said. "But I'm still here, and that, to me, means a lot. And I'm going to continue until they don't want me."
In retrospect, all we learned from these conversations is that Santana is not to be believed when it comes to his physical condition. Back in 2008, Santana hid a torn knee and earned pitcher of the month honors in September by pitching on one leg. He required surgery.
Some would argue the Mets are better off without Santana in the rotation now. Over his last five starts, he's 0-5 with a 15.63 ERA and has allowed 43 hits in 19 innings. But as bad as the results have been, this is a big-picture problem now, one that could affect next season, when Santana is owed $31 million.
If Santana's back ailment is serious enough to require further medical attention and an MRI, then he really shouldn't pitch again this season. Having to compensate for lower back pain could easily mess with his surgically repaired shoulder, elbow or some other part of his body.
Before the game, Collins explained how careful the Mets would be with Santana, essentially having him take his turn in the rotation with training wheels. The consensus had Santana on a strict pitch count -- a number below 100 -- and the organization believed he would be safe in that range.
This is uncharted territory for Santana, who has looked to be on fumes in his first full season after major shoulder surgery. But no one involved in Monday's pregame discussion sounded ready to shut him down. The impression of throwing in the towel, even for a team out of the playoff race, was a message the Mets didn't want to send.
"We've got six weeks left in the season," Alderson said. "We have a 25-man roster. Everybody plays to the end. That's one consideration."
The other, Alderson added, was the hope that Santana could finish on a "high note." But the general manager didn't get into details about what he meant by that. Obviously, a season-ending MRI is not what he had in mind.
Alderson knew there would come a point of "diminishing returns," when Santana would have to be shut down. The Mets seemed resigned to that, even with their most optimistic projections. They just didn't think it would happen this fast -- and Collins had that deer-in-the-headlights look when he revealed the MRI news.
As much as the Mets try to prepare for the future, they inevitably get blindsided by it. What happened Monday with Santana really wasn't their fault -- it only looks that way. Now they just have to prevent it from getting any worse.