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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Johan Santana had too much at stake

Johan Santana looks on from the dugout during

Johan Santana looks on from the dugout during a game against the Colorado Rockies at Citi Field. (Aug. 20, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Johan Santana was not going to stop pitching this season until the Mets took away the baseball. And when that finally happened Wednesday, the two-time Cy Young winner looked relieved.

No more anti-inflammatory shots. No more balancing the familiar aches and pains he was feeling again after a year away from the game. No more bending under the weight of trying to be Johan Santana.

The Mets ultimately saved Santana from himself when doctors insisted on the MRI that ultimately ended the debate. You get the sense Santana would have gladly started Thursday-- surely to his detriment -- just as he did with a sprained ankle for weeks before landing on the disabled list in July.

But there's too much at stake with Santana. The Mets knew this day was coming, and they already were preparing for it by going to a six-man rotation earlier this month. It's called quitting while you're ahead, and something that Santana isn't entirely comfortable with.

After what Santana had done to come back from career-threatening shoulder surgery, it made him appreciate this season even more. That's a place Santana couldn't get to until it was over.

"When I got on the mound that day for my first start," Santana said, "I didn't know if I could even do this again."

Now he knows. As do the Mets, who desperately need a healthy Santana to even approach respectability in 2013. Before this season began, all they had to cling to was faith. But Santana provided them with proof this year by throwing the franchise's first no-hitter. Also, his surgically repaired shoulder was never an issue.

Aside from Santana, the Mets are returning R.A. Dickey and should round out the rotation with Matt Harvey, Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee. Unless Zack Wheeler looks like Doc Gooden in spring training, he almost certainly will start the season at Triple-A Buffalo.

Thanks to the $31 million owed to Santana next year, the Mets aren't likely to make any renovations to the roster, which is expected to again remain in the $90-million range for 2013. On that austerity plan, they must squeeze as many starts as possible from Santana, who was 6-5, 3.24 before the All-Star break, when the Mets were 46-40.

"The way we played in the first half -- one of the reasons we were so successful -- is that Johan Santana was in that rotation and he was in that clubhouse," Terry Collins said. "We've seen him be successful and I think he'll continue to be successful. So I'm not disappointed."

In the big picture, Santana is missing roughly five starts. More importantly, the extended rest -- as well as no additional injuries -- should help him return. Santana was looking forward to a winter without a relentless rehab program and that break may be the best thing for a pitcher who will turn 34 in March.

"Time will tell," Santana said. "We'll see how this offseason goes. If I recover well, we'll see where we're at."

The Mets tried to accentuate the positive during their series of news conferences. Santana doesn't need surgery, which means they can at least count on him to start spring training on time. Otherwise, the only lingering question with Santana is just how much that 134-pitch no-hitter contributed to his later problems, if at all.

Collins still can't seem to take himself completely off the hook, no matter how many times he's asked. But Sandy Alderson claimed there was no correlation, as did Santana, which was to be expected.

"Nah, not at all," Santana said. "That's a long time ago."

The Mets are praying that Santana's best days are not behind him. They have too much invested -- financially and otherwise -- for this comeback season to also be his farewell tour.

"I can't sit here and say this is a shock or even a surprise," Alderson said. "It's disappointing, but that's the nature of things."

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