Johan Santana pitched through fatigue, stiffness, soreness and yes, even sharp, biting pain. That's what separates great pitchers from good ones, Cy Young winners from aces. It's how they force themselves to take the mound every five days and accumulate five straight seasons of 200-plus innings, as Santana did from 2004 to 2008.
The fact that Santana now faces the likelihood of a second surgery for a torn capsule -- which could end not only his season but his career -- is terrible news for both him and the Mets.
But was it avoidable? Given Santana's bulldog mentality and the Mets' desperate belief in him, the climate was ideal for this type of catastrophe. The exact cause or precise moment of the injury that put Santana in that MRI tube this week, however, is difficult to determine.
"We don't know when it happened or how it happened," Sandy Alderson said Thursday during the Mets' shocking announcement. "But what we do know is that at some point symptoms appeared, and they worsened rather than improved. At this point, we simply don't know when this occurred."
Did Santana hurt himself throwing the 134 pitches he needed to complete the June 1 no-hitter last season? He was never the same afterward, going 3-7 with an 8.27 ERA in his next 10 starts before being shut down Aug. 17 with a variety of physical issues.
If it had been anyone else coming back from shoulder capsule surgery -- a very delicate rebuild -- Terry Collins probably would have pulled the plug on that no-hit bid. But because this was Santana, Collins stuck with him, breaking down in tears afterward. And because it was Santana, he was able to finish the job despite the obvious toll. It basically cost him the rest of the season.
After that exhausting stretch, Santana took the winter off and scaled himself back to a minimal throwing program. Was he hurting even then? Alderson said he passed his physical when he arrived at spring training and, according to the GM, doctors believed that he did not require any follow-up tests, such as an MRI.
That being the case, the Mets and Santana tried to map out the usual spring training progression. But he soon complained of what the team described as "fatigue" and was slowed down again. At that juncture, maybe another MRI would have discovered a re-tear, if it even existed then.
Alderson started what might have been a high-stakes game of chicken by suggesting that Santana showed up in Port St. Lucie out of shape and not as up to speed pitching-wise as he should have been. The fuming Santana, his pride tweaked, answered the next morning by throwing a bullpen session on his own, days ahead of his revamped schedule, and with a ferocity that surprised the staff. He has looked fried ever since that rogue session. But Alderson refused to say whether that could have led to the injury.
"We don't know that nor do we speculate about that," Alderson said. "I think Johan would probably be the best person to shed some light on any timeline, but even he may not be able to do so."
The best month Santana ever had in a Mets uniform came at the end of 2008, his first year with the Mets. In his final six starts, with the Mets fighting for a playoff berth, Santana went 4-0 with a 1.83 ERA.
The final time he took the mound, on Sept. 27, Santana beat the Marlins with a three-hit shutout. Four days later, he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, an injury he pitched with for that entire month of September.
Was Santana lucky not to be hurt worse trying to compensate? Probably.
But that's something a pitcher like Santana doesn't think about until it's too late.