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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Santana plus Lee would be pocket aces

The Mets' Johan Santana pitches against the Cincinnati

The Mets' Johan Santana pitches against the Cincinnati Reds in the first inning. (July 6, 2010) Photo Credit: John Dunn

At some point before July 31, the Mets are going to have to decide whether to trade for Cliff Lee, trade for a lesser starting pitcher or trade for no one.

Some people think they are going to go hard after Lee. Some think they are wary of getting Lee and then losing him as a free agent to - gasp! - the Yankees.

As the Mets knock their heads together on this, they might want to look at what Johan Santana did against the Reds Tuesday night - and we don't mean the home run he hit off the rightfield foul pole in the third inning.

Santana dominated the Reds in a three-hit, 3-0 victory. He had better stuff than he's had in some time and displayed guts and poise after a ninth-inning error threatened to wreck his gem.

How good was he? He was Cliff Lee good.

That's what the Mets should ponder as the days get closer to the trade deadline. Santana did Tuesday night what Lee has been doing almost every time out for the woebegone Seattle Mariners, and what he did last year for the Phillies in the first game of the World Series against the Yankees and what he could do for the Mets as a half-season rental:

Dominate.

If the Mets want to contend for the winnable NL East crown or the really winnable wild card, they have to move heaven and Earth - or at least whatever reasonable haul of prospects the Mariners want - to get Lee.

If the price is too high or the Mariners like some other team's kids better, so be it. But Mets executives are saying privately that they want to go all in to get an ace. Lee is the only ace out there who doesn't have a ridiculous contract the Mets would be unwise to absorb (sorry, Roy Oswalt fans).

Ted Lilly - another lefthander who could be attractive to the Mets - has stretches of dominance. But he would be more of a gamble than Lee, if what you are seeking is as sure a thing as there is in baseball today.

Lee is 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA and has five complete games in 13 starts. Santana (6-5, 3.15) used to be that type of sure thing. He was Tuesday night, especially in the ninth, when a one-out error by Jason Bay in leftfield sent the tying run to the plate and Mets manager Jerry Manuel to the mound.

Manuel admitted he considered taking Santana out and bringing in Francisco Rodriguez. Mets fans voted with considerable boos when Manuel popped out.

"When I left the dugout, I was definitely contemplating, but I hate to remove a guy from a defensive mistake," Manuel said. "So I wanted to hear from him how he felt and he said he wanted to finish it."

Bay, who lost Jay Bruce's fly ball in the lights for his first error in 263 games, said, "He deserved to finish that game, the way he pitched."

Santana retired the next two batters on two pitches. That's what an ace does. Picks his mates up. Elevates his team.

The complete game was his first of the season. The shutout was his first since Sept. 27, 2008, when he blanked the Marlins on a bum knee with the Mets' season on the line.

That more than anything should have cemented Santana's reputation as a big-game pitcher, but it is sometimes forgotten because the Mets lost the next day and missed the playoffs. When healthy, Santana has always been a better pitcher in the second half. So maybe the Mets don't need Cliff Lee to make the playoffs. Maybe that's being greedy.

Perhaps, in this case, greed is good.

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