David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
The Mets didn't come straight out and say they were upset with Johan Santana for being unprepared to pitch when he arrived for spring training.
Because that's not what you do with the franchise's No. 1 starter. Or in Santana's case, what's left of one.
General manager Sandy Alderson hinted at some degree of disappointment but talked about moving on. Manager Terry Collins bobbed and weaved during Saturday's postgame media briefing. Pitching coach Dan Warthen summed up the problem thusly: "It's Johan Santana -- he knows how to get himself ready."
That was the assumption, anyway, and right around now, the Mets are feeling a little burned. Collins admitted to talking with Santana for about 15 minutes Saturday morning, and it sounds as if the pitcher's schedule is very much in flux.
Collins and the others may have showed restraint Saturday in discussing Santana's out-of-shape arrival, but wait a little while. If Santana needs to be pushed back any further, and the first week of the season gets flushed, he'll deserve plenty of blame. As the highest-paid Met, at a guaranteed $31 million this season, Santana can't be putting the team in this situation.
"I'm not pointing fingers at the organization or Johan," Alderson said. "We're dealing with the reality, which is he's not ready to pitch. He will be at some point. We're hoping it's sooner rather than later."
This time there were no medical excuses. In the four previous years, Santana was coming back from some sort of surgery -- knee, elbow or shoulder -- and required his own personalized spring training schedule. When he showed up this time, it should have been as simple as jumping into the rotation with everyone else. But that didn't happen, and when the Mets had to put the brakes on Santana, everyone was surprised.
The plan for him was to take it easier this offseason, with a less intense throwing regimen. But it turned out to be insufficient.
Santana's only shot at saving face now is to rally in time for Opening Day -- or at least be included in the first turn through the rotation. Otherwise, he'll be labeled a slacker at the start of his farewell tour in Flushing.
When asked about his somewhat relaxed offseason and his current need to play catch-up, Santana smiled.
"I've been doing this for years," he told Newsday. "I know what it takes. And that's what I'm doing right now -- getting ready for the season, not spring training. I'm very focused. I know exactly what I have to do, so that's what I'm doing."
Santana, a 12-year veteran with two Cy Young trophies, makes a convincing argument. In his mind, the offseason was to rest. Once he pulled into Tradition Field, he figured seven weeks would be plenty to sharpen up for the April 1 opener.
But he's also turning 34 later this month. Factor that with the mileage on Santana's surgically- patched-together body and it gets more difficult to gauge where he's at. Or to know what the Mets can expect from him anymore.
"It's too early for me to even guess what's going to happen," Warthen said. "I think he's going to get out there, I think he's going to be strong, I think his stuff is going to be fine. I think he'll be where he was at the beginning of last year. From that point, it's too hard to predict."
After so much time on a surgeon's table and the lengthy rehab that follows, it is understandable that Santana wanted to take a breather during the offseason. He achieved Mets immortality with his June 1 no-hitter at Citi Field, but never recovered from throwing those 134 pitches. Warthen explained that Santana needed the offseason to recharge, both physically and mentally.
By resting his arm, Santana figured he would save a few months' worth of bullets. Rather than hitting a wall on Aug. 17, as Santana did last season, maybe a more laissez-faire offseason approach would allow him to push through to October.
That was the thought process going in. In the Mets' view, it may have backfired.
"Were we surprised, disappointed, unhappy?" Alderson said. "Those are reactions I'm not really ready to get into. In the case of any pitcher who isn't ready to go in spring training, sure there's a little disappointment. But that's true with anybody in any situation."
Wondering whether Santana will be ready to pitch on Opening Day has become a rite of spring for the Mets. The story line is an all-too-familiar one.
In past years, it was a matter of the Mets keeping their fingers crossed. If Santana falls short this time, they'll be pointed at him instead.