Terry Collins couldn't take the ball from Johan Santana

Josh Thole embraces Johan Santana after his no-hitter.

Josh Thole embraces Johan Santana after his no-hitter. (June 1, 2012) (Credit: David Pokress)

Shortly after Johan Santana celebrated on the Citi Field mound Friday, surrounded by his smiling teammates, overwhelmed in a moment of pure joy, Terry Collins sat at a microphone, stared at the TV cameras and choked back tears.

If only Collins could handle his conscience as easily as Santana dominated the Cardinals in throwing the first no-hitter in Mets' history. But this manager isn't wired that way. Collins cares way too much about his players to simply toss them a ball and hang on for the ride.

So as everyone else at Citi anxiously watched Santana stack up hitless inning after hitless innings, Collins fretted over the pitch count. It ate him alive. Before the game, when asked about the handcuffs on Santana and his surgically repaired left shoulder, Collins put the ceiling at 115 pitches.

But Santana blew past that in the eighth inning, specifically with a two-out walk to Rafael Furcal. That's when Collins emerged from the dugout to check on his ace. After a brief conversation, Collins walked off the mound to loud applause and didn't return again.

"I just couldn't take him out," Collins said. "I just couldn't do it."

Who was Collins, after all, to stand in the way of history? The Mets had played 8,019 games without a no-hitter, joining the Padres as the only teams in that special bracket of misery.

But with Santana in a position to erase all that, to give the Mets the next best thing to another World Series crown, there were other matters to consider. Santana is only 21 months removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder, about as serious as it gets.

Everyone knew what was at stake as Santana's pitch count steadily climbed.

"We're all talking about it," R.A. Dickey said. "What's he going to do? Is he going to take him out? We're all playing manager. And to a man, we all agreed that he'd have to rip the ball out of our hands."

Said David Wright: "I thought there was going to be no chance that he was going to be able to finish the game. I don't think anybody had the courage to go and take the ball from him."

This was as hard a decision as it gets for a manager: baseball's version of a Faustian bargain.

Was Collins willing to sell out Santana -- and his repaired shoulder -- for the immediate glory of a no-hitter? For a page in a record book? For a baseball in Cooperstown? What kind of decision is that? "I wanted it for him," Collins said. "I wanted it for the organization. But you just don't jeopardize his career or the whole organization for one inning. We'll wait five days and see how he is."

Collins' affection for Santana was obvious. After Santana retired the side in the seventh inning, the manager told the pitcher he was his hero. As Collins discussed the game afterward, he stopped occasionally as his voice began to crack and his eyes welled up. It happened more than once. Collins was truly scared by the potential consequences of his decision. Santana had come too far to have it all fall apart after only 11 starts.

"In five days, if his arm is hurting him," Collins said, "I'm not going to feel very good."

But that's a worry for later in the week. This was a time for celebration. As soon as Santana struck out David Freese -- the 2011 World Series MVP -- with a nasty changeup, he was first hugged by Josh Thole before a party broke out on the mound.

"That's the greatest feeling ever," Santana said moments before Justin Turner smothered him with a whipped-cream pie.

If Santana is still smiling five days from now, maybe then Collins finally will allow himself to do so as well.