Johan Santana Claims He's Fine, But Is He?

Patrick VillanovaContributor IJune 15, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - MAY 16:  Johan Santana #57 of the New York Mets pitches to the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park on May 16, 2009 in San Francisco, California.  The Mets won 9-6.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Mets ace Johan Santana may be the best pitcher on the planet. He has proven himself throughout his career, first in Minnesota, and now during his first two seasons as a New York Met.

But Santana hardly looked the part of the "best pitcher in baseball" Sunday afternoon. The Yankees lambasted him for nine runs in only three innings of work during the Mets' embarrassing 15-0 dismantlement in the Bronx.

The outing was the worst of Santana's career.

Addressing the media after the disastrous start, Santana said that although he had been pitching with some minor aches and pains over the past month, he is completely healthy.

But Sunday's shelling is the latest in what has been a string of shaky starts for the left-handed Venezuelan. Last week, Santana gave up five runs, including four home runs to the Phillies, in the Mets' lone victory of the three-game set.

Santana was dealt his third loss of the season on June 2, when the Pirates scored three runs on him. The start before that, despite earning a 7-4 win against the Nationals, Santana struggled with control, walking six Washington batters. In a May 16 start in San Francisco, Santana surrendered six runs, four earned, over seven innings of work.

Saturday's bombardment was merely an exclamation point on Santana's recent struggles.

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The numbers don't lie, either.

While Santana gave up only four earned runs in his first seven starts of the year, he has surrendered 26 earned runs in his last six outings.  

All aces are important to their teams, but Santana is perhaps the more crucial to the Mets than any other player in the bigs. Without the two-time Cy Young winner firing on all cylinders, the Mets have no chance at dethroning the Phillies in the NL East, or even wrestling the Wild Card away from the Cardinals, Brewers, or whoever is there down the stretch.

Mets fans may really be starting to sweat as the armor on their unflappable ace seems to have been eroded a bit over the last few weeks. Before scores of blue and orange clad fans take to the ledges around the New York area, a separate trend is far more important to consider. (Cue sunlight breaking through the heavy gray clouds over Queens.)

As good as Santana is, he is even better over the second half of the year. Look no further than last season, when at the All-Star Break, he had a pedestrian 8-7 record. After the break, though, Santana went an astounding 8-0, with a 2.84 ERA.

Santana would have probably won his third Cy Young, if the  incompetent Met bull pen hadn't blown seven of his leads throughout the year.  

And last season was certainly no fluke. Back in 2004 for the Twins, Santana went 7-6 over the first half of the year, then went 13-0 the latter half, racking up a filthy 1.21 ERA. The next year, he went 9-2 in the second half with a 1.59 ERA. In 2006, still in Minnesota, Santana started out 9-5, then compiled a 10-1 record in the second half.

The message is simple and clear: baring injury, Johan will be there for the Mets in the second half. The guy is a battle tested, proven winner who goes out and competes every start (well almost every start).

It's easy for the always uneasy Mets fans to blow his recent hiccups out of proportion. Santana will right himself, find his rhythm again, and provide the Mets the type of lock down, front end pitcher they need to earn their first playoff berth since 2006. 

Whether or not the rest of the team will show up in the second half is an entirely different story.