The Mets know that Johan Santana is too good, too savvy, too complete a pitcher to lose heart. So they don't worry about him getting frustrated by his shortage of support or wins. Every time he starts, his manager is confident Santana will be competitive and go deep in the game.
Santana couldn't have gone any deeper last night. He went all the way to the finish of a three-hitter against the Reds at Citi Field. What's more, he really went deep, breaking a scoreless tie in the third inning of a 3-0 win with his first career home run. It was his first complete game of the season and, all told, perhaps his most complete game as a Met.
"All I can say is now I'm on the board," Santana said, referring to the shot that slammed into the rightfield foul pole to cap a 12-pitch at-bat. But he might as well have been talking about his place in the Mets universe.
The ace who had been suspected of tipping his pitches during a recent bad spell might have tipped everybody off to a possible big second half of the season.
"When he can throw his fastball with the life he has on it, I think you'll see him have a pretty good run for us," Jerry Manuel said.
Before last night, it had not been half-great for Santana. His record had been only 5-5, but Manuel said before the game that he never worries about the ace getting frustrated: "I always look, when he takes the ball, for a competitive game and for him to go deep in the game."
His support had been almost nonexistent. In his previous three starts, the Mets totaled one run. He took care of the offense with his shot in the third against Reds starter Matt Maloney, a minor-league call-up Tuesday to replace Aaron Harang, who was put on the disabled list.
Santana couldn't remember ever having hit a home run in professional ball, other than, as he said, "Video games." He just wouldn't give in or give up, which is kind of the way he is approaching his season after surgery.
"He works real hard with his swing," Manuel said. "He takes a lot of pride in it, just like he does with his pitching."
The pitcher said, "I just used that 'See the ball, hit the ball.' I wasn't trying to do anything else."
He wasn't even sure it had gone out until he heard all the cheering. "It was a great feeling, one of the best," he said.
Fans demanded a curtain call, which is very rare for a pitcher's at-bat. Just as rare for Santana was the kind of support he got in the sixth. Jose Reyes, back in the lineup even though his side still was sore, started it with a bunt single, and David Wright received a one-out intentional walk. Then Jason Bay hit a two-run single to center to give Santana a 3-0 lead.
All that was left was to see if Santana could finish.
The crowd roared when he ran to the mound for the top of the ninth and roared later when Manuel left a mound visit without taking Santana out - despite having the tying run coming to the plate with one out.
"I wanted to hear him tell me he wanted to finish it," the manager said, adding he didn't think it would have been fair to lift him after Bay's error on Jay Bruce's easy fly. Bay, who had gone 263 games without an error, said he lost it in the lights.
Santana hadn't had a complete game since 2008, but he didn't have any trouble remembering what to say in that conversation with his manager.
"I said, 'I'll finish it,' and that was about it," the pitcher said. "And I finished it."
The Mets hope it was just a start.