MIAMI - Forget this train wreck of a season. The Mets breathed a huge sigh of relief Tuesday because they discovered that Johan Santana, who needs surgery to remove bone chips in his left elbow, should be fine for 2010 and beyond.
Everyone did a good job acting surprised by the news, but the Mets had an idea of what was coming. The team knew Santana had been pitching with the bone chips throughout last season, according to a person close to the two-time Cy Young Award winner, but it was decided not to clean out the elbow because he already was scheduled for knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus last October.
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Santana was likely to require the elbow procedure sooner or later, and that time arrived Thursday, when he described "range of motion" problems during a start against the Braves. Even so, he insisted Tuesday that he would have stayed in the rotation if the Mets were in the hunt for a playoff spot.
"There is no question," Santana said on a conference call. "I don't want to get shut down at all. If it would have been a different situation, I would have kept pitching."
Instead, Nelson Figueroa took his place last night and pitched well in a 2-1 loss to the Marlins. Figueroa allowed four hits and one earned run in five innings, but all the Mets could manage was Fernando Tatis' RBI single.
Santana alerted the Mets to the problem shortly before the All-Star break and even visited team orthopedist David Altchek, who apparently believed he could pitch under proper maintenance. (The team doesn't make its medical staff available to speak with the media.)
After the break, Santana went 3-2 with a 3.22 ERA in seven starts, but the Mets noticed a drop-off in his velocity and location. He had stopped throwing side sessions between starts, just as he did a year ago, and it was taking him longer to recover.
When asked why the Mets didn't shut down Santana sooner, pitching coach Dan Warthen flatly responded: "Because at times it didn't hurt him. Johan never says anything about his own physical pain until he actually finally came clean and said this thing is kind of bugging me."
Jerry Manuel faced the same line of questioning Tuesday and echoed Warthen's defense.
"When it gets to the point where he mentions it, then all of a sudden the flags go up," Manuel said. "We have to make sure we do right by him. But before that, there wasn't any mention from his point of view that he was hindered or shackled by it at all."
Back in spring training, Santana was bothered by left elbow tightness that put his Opening Day start in jeopardy. But the Mets' $137.5-million ace said the earlier elbow condition was unrelated to this problem with the bone chips, and his numbers at the start of the season appear to back him up. He had a 1.77 ERA after 10 starts, but that kept rising steadily through June and his elbow problems worsened after the All-Star break.
"My understanding from the doctor is that some of those bone chips were kind of breaking up," general manager Omar Minaya said. "We would like to think it's a minor surgery and we feel comfortable he's going to be ready in spring training."
Santana sounded confident, as well. He mentioned having the same surgery after the 2003 season and rebounded to go 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA in winning his first Cy Young for the Twins. Unlike every other one of the Mets' numerous injuries this season - and Santana makes 19 players on the DL - this appears to have somewhat of a silver lining.
"We are in this thing together," Santana said. "I let everybody know right away because I know that in the long term, we're here for the years to come. You don't want to go out there and blow it and make it worse. I'm going to do my best to recover and believe me, I'm going to be ready to go for 2010.
"I've been through this before. I know exactly what it is and I know exactly what it takes me to get ready to get back on the mound and help my team. We're doing it a month sooner than I did [in 2003], so I'm very optimistic that we're going to be good."