Someone had to do it, right? The Mets had gone 50 seasons without a no-hitter when Johan Santana grounded the St. Louis Cardinals on June 1, 2012 to get New York off the schneid. It was vintage Johan. With pinpoint command of a popping fastball, biting slider and parachute changeup, the Venezuelan star held the best-hitting team in the league without a hit. After missing an entire year to injury, Johan has returned with plenty left in the tank and more than a little he'd like to prove. This is his story…
Johan Alexander Santana was born on March 13, 1979, in the remote town of Tovar, located in the Merida section of Venezuela. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) Known for its soccer players, cyclists and artists, the region had never produced a major leaguer, but there were some quality players in town. That included Johan's father, Jesus, a full-time engineer and highly regarded part-time semi-pro shortstop. Johan's older brother, Franklin, also showed real promise. In fact, Jesus thought he had the most potential in the family.
Johan, a natural lefty, emulated his father in every way. When he was told lefthanders didn't traditionally play shortstop, Johan taught himself how to gun the ball across the infield with his right arm. He also played the outfield, where he fielded exclusively as a lefty.
Despite possessing plenty of talent and enthusiasm,
Johan did not have a good experience at his first youth baseball tryout. The team’s
coach sent the yougnster away, claiming he was dressed improperly. The next day, Johan returned wearing his father’s jersey. When the same coach realized
whose son Johan was, he received a much warmer welcome.
Although he fooled around on the mound in pick-up games around Tovar, Johan did not pitch in an organized game until his mid teens. The potential for something special was always there, however. On a couple of occasions, Johan was removed from no-hitters. Even then, his coaches knew he was a boy whose assets should be protected.
Like one of his idols, All-Star Ricky Henderson, Johan was also a bit of a hot dog. Indeed, he loved to elicit oohs and aahs from the crowd with harder-than-necessary catches. In other respects, Johan acted more like the other big-league stars he worshipped—Ken Griffey Jr. and countrymen Dave Concepcion and Andres Galarraga. Winning and being part of a team was important to him.
Every year, the Chiquilines would compete in Venezuela's national baseball tournament, and every year they would go much farther than anyone expected. Pro scouts began looking closely at the club. That's when they first noticed Johan. The problem was getting to where he played. There’s the middle of nowhere, and then there’s the middle of nowhere in Venezuela.
Andres Reiner, a scout for the Houston Astros, liked Johan enough to drive 10 hours through the Andes to the Santana home. Reiner made the trip during the 1994 baseball strike, after he had been instructed not to spend any money. He was so excited about Johan that he dug into his own pockets to get a car. Reiner rang the doorbell, and the teenager answered. He told the boy that he had the arm to pitch professionally.
Johan was also being pursued by the Colorado Rockies, who had a camp in Venezuela. At one point, he traveled nine hours to a tryout, but made a poor showing. Still, Colorado was interested. Johan’s family was so impressed by Reiner’s effort, however, that they convinced him to sign with Houston. The deal was done in July of 1995, just after Johan's 16th birthday.
When Reiner looked at Johan, he saw major-league pitching talent. The Astros agreed and moved the teenager to the mound when he joined their Dominican Summer League team in 1996. The gangly 17-year-old hurled 40 innings, primarily in relief. Enemy batters managed a meager .178 average against him.
In 1997, Johan was promoted to Houston’s Kissimmee affiliate in the Gulf Coast League. There, he threw 36 innings of relief and got hit hard. At the end of the year, he also started a game for the Auburn Doubeldays of the New York-Penn League. Johan was back in Auburn for most of the 1998 season. He regained his form as a starter, winning seven games and racking up 88 strikeouts in 87 innings.
ON THE RISE
Johan spent the entire 1999 campaign with the Michigan Battle Cats of the Class-A Midwest League. The Astros stockpiled the Michigan roster with a group of top pitching prospects, including Roy Oswalt, Tim Redding, Mike Gallo, Jacob Whitney and Mike Nannini. Under the tutelage of Al Pedrique, who would later manage the Arizona Diamondbacks, Johan led the staff in starts with 26. He went 8-8 with a 4.66 ERA and a team-high 150 strikeouts in 160 inning.
For the second straight
season, Johan showed improvement with his fastball, curve and change. he also impressed with his
arm strength, which was well beyond his 20 years. Unfortunately, the Astros felt
Johan was still years away from wearing a Houston uniform. When they had
to set their 40-man roster, the last spot came down to Johan and teammate
Aaron McNeal, who was coming off a 38-homer, 131-RBI season. They opted
for McNeal, exposing the young lefty in the Rule 5 draft.
The bullpen, however, was shaky. Johan joined the club as a mop-up man and spot starter. Though he got hammered to the tune of a 6.49 ERA, he still convinced the Minnesota brass that he belonged on the roster the following year. Unlike many Rule 5 draftees, who simply assume they will be shipped back down after a year, Johan did whatever he could to stick around.
Johan got his first major league win against his old club, the Astros, in June. He pitched five innings in relief of Milton, who was felled by a line drive. When Johan entered the game, pitching coach Dick Such told catcher Matt LeCroy to call a lot of changeups. Johann tantalized Houston, giving up just a couple of hits. After the game, he framed the scorecard and hung it on a wall in his mother’s house.
Despite the efforts of veteran skipper Tom Kelly, the Twins were unable to overcome their youthful inexperience. The team ERA soared above 5.00, and no one hit as many as 20 homers. Minnesota finished 24 games under .500 at 69-93.
The Twins were still regarded as a bottom-of-the-barrel franchise headed into 2001. Once again, the Cleveland Indians were the team to beat in the AL Central. Minnesota didn’t figure to give them much competition. The starting staff was anchored again by Radke, with Milton and Mays trying to find consistency. The bullpen depended on converted starter LaTroy Hawkins and lefty Eddie Guardado. With the club's young hitters on the rise, the offense showed some pop—but a .500 record still seemed out of the question.
The experts were stunned when this motley crew stayed right with Cleveland through the first half. Timely hitting, aggressiveness on the bases, tight defense and solid pitching kept the Twins in the hunt well into July. Then they finally came back down to earth. At 85-77, Minnesota finished six games behind the Indians and well out of the running for the Wild Card.
Johan contributed little to the Minnesota renaissance, nursing a sore elbow through half the season. He got into 15 games, including four starts, and wound up with a 1-0 record.
The Twins believed they could maintain their momentum going in 2002—this despite losing Kelly to retirement. His replacement, Ron Gardenhire, knew the players and tinkered only slightly with the lineup. The team hadn’t drawn flies—much less fans—the previous season, and with Major League Baseball increasingly nervous about its bottom line, word went out that the Twins were a prime candidate for contraction.
Under the shadow of potential dissolution, Minnesota went out and played great baseball. Leaving the Indians and Chicago White Sox in the dust of the AL Central, the Twins posted a 94-67 record. Not a single position player had anything close to a career year, and the only pitching surprise was Guardado’s effectiveness as a closer. It was simplya case of everyone chipping in. Every night there was a new hero, and slowly but surely, the fans came trickling back in to the MetroDome.
Johan’s contribution came in the form of an 8-6 record, 2.99 ERA and a whopping 137 strikeouts in just over 100 innings. The key was his improved control and confidence in his changeup, which was now delivered with an arm motion that was virtually indistinguishable from his fastball. Johan froze hitters, who watched helplessly as strikeout pitches floated into the catcher’s glove at a snail-like 75 mph. To sharpen his command, the Twins chose to start him off at Class-AAA Edmonton so he could face more batters on a regular basis.
Johan was recalled after nine starts. Once he proved he could slip his slowball past major-league hitters, he was promoted to Minnesota’s starting rotation. Injuries to Mays and Radke opened the door, and Johan made the most of his opportunity. As he racked up wins and strikeouts, he became a fan favorite. A crowd of more than 30,000 showed up to watch him against Toronto in late July. Johan rewared them by fanning 13 Blue Jays, mixing his tailing two-seamer with his slider and change. When Radke and Mays returned to health, Johan rejoined the bullpen, though he didn’t like it. Impatient to be a big-league starter, he thought of demanding a trade.
Johan became one of Guardado’s set-up men along with Hawkins and JC Romero. He flourished in that role, mowing down batters in the late innings.
The Twins faced the Oakland A’s in the Division Series. They were seen as major underdogs. Johan relieved Radke in Game 1 and got roughed up, but Minnesota hung on for a 7-5 win. The A’s took the next two games. The Twins responded with a pair of victories, 11-2 and 5-4, to advance to the ALCS. The series win energized the Minnesota fans.
With the Anaheim Angels having knocked off the New York Yankees, the unthinkable—a World Series berth for the contraction-designated Twins—now seemed within reach. Unfortunately, it was not to be. After Mays befuddled the Angels in a Game 1 win, the Angels continued their torrid post-season hitting and swept the final four games for the pennant. Johan got into all four losses and took his lumps along with the rest of the bullpen.
MAKING HIS MARK
The Twins entered 2003 as the team to beat in the AL Central—and they played like it. Minnesota edged the White Sox and Kansas City Royals with 90 wins, despite losing slugger David Ortiz to free agency. Veteran Kenny Rogers was added to the starting staff (after Milton hurt his knee in spring training) and pitched well. That was an important development because Mays and Rick Reed did not.
In July, the club finally decided to give Johan a shot in the rotation. The move went against Gardenhire ’s better instincts, but Minnesota did not have the cash to sign an impact pitcher down the stretch. Johan provided that impact and then some, helping to keep the Twins ahead of the surging Sox. His biggest victory came on September 10, after Chicago won the first two games of a key four-game set. Johan shut down the White Sox and the Twins never looked back.
Johan wound up at 12-3 with a 3.07 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 159 innings. A perfect 8-0 down the stretch, he was Minnesota's ace heading into the postseason. The only glitch in Johan’s season was a balky hamstring, which he had injured during winter ball in Venezuela. It cramped up during a September outing against the Texas Rangers, forcing him to leave the game.
That hamstring would come back into play during the Division Series against the Yankees. Johan was dominating the Bronx Bombers in Game 1. In the fifth inning, however, his leg cramped so badly he had to be carried from the dugout to the trainer’s room. The Twins won, but wondered whether their best pitcher would be able to recover in time for his Game 4 start.
Minnesota kept Johan hydrated and stretched over the next four days. By Game 4, he was ready to take his turn. The Twins, who had coughed up a lead in Game 2 and lost a tight one in Game 3, faced elimination. Trying to tame the Yankees without his best stuff, Johan didn't make it out of the fourth inning. New York clobbered him and won 8-1 to advance to the ALCS.
Johan had his elbow scoped after the capaign, skipped winter ball, and reported to spring training in great shape. He got cuffed around in his first four exhibition appearances, but returned to form in time for the 2004 season opener. Johan's focus was on his slider, as he worked to release the ball out in front. The adjustment also helped improve the mechanics on his changeup and fastball.
With Guardado and Hawkins lost to free agency, and Joe Nathan an unproven closer, Gardenhire worried that his bullpen might not hold up. Also gone was Pierzynski, replaced by phenom Joe Mauer. Unfortuantely, the young catcher hurt his knee right out of the gate, which really weakened the Minnesota lineup. The good news was that Shannon Stewart—picked up the previous summer at the trade deadline—was back and looking good.
Johan opened the second half with a victory over the White Sox, hurling six innings of one-run ball. It soon became clear that he had taken that next step as a pitcher. The lefty was setting up batters and finishing them off in ways that made them look ridiculous. Whereas in the past he required a few innings to get all of his pitches functioning, now they were all there when he first toed the rubber. Instead of just winging it down the middle, Johan was hitting spots and relying on natural movement to nip the edges. Able to pitch inside with more confidence, he transformed himself into a true ace.
A scorching July vaulted Johan ahead of Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling in the AL strikeout race. The only thing keeping him from joining the league leaders in victories was Minnesota's sluggish offense. Heading into August, Johan turned it up another notch. He fashioned a one-hitter against the Royals to end a losing streak that threatened to kill his club’s chances at another division title. A couple of weeks later, he matched Martinez strikeout for strikeout in a classic pitching duel that had Pedro raving about him.
At that point, Johan was pitching historic baseball. His stats for August were staggering—10 earned runs and 52 strikeouts in 43.1 innings—with victories coming against Boston, Oakland, New York, Seattle, Texas, and Anaheim. His sweetest win came against the Yankees in front of a near-capacity crowd ... in Minnesota. Johan handled the Bronx Bombers 7-2 on national television.
He went on to win six more in September. His ERA for the month was 0.45, and he again struck out 52. Limiting opponents to less than a baserunner an inning, Johan put himself into contention for the Cy Young. He ended the second half with a 13-0 record, a 1.18 ERA and a .154 opponent batting average.
After wrapping up the AL Central by nine games, the Twins packed their bags and headed east to face the Yankees. Gardenhire handed Johan the ball in Game 1, and the lefty delivered a 2-0 victory. When Minnesota dropped the next two—including a painful extra-inning loss in New York—Johan was forced to take the hill on short rest in the Game 4. The Yankees waited him out, pusing his pitch count to 87 through five innings. Out of gas, he departed up 4-1, hopeful taht the bullpen would protect the lead. When New York rallied for four runs in the eighth inning, the Twins were done. All things considered, Johan did his job in the playoffs—12 innings over two games, with a win and a 0.75 ERA.
Was there a correct word to describe Johan's ’04 campaign? "Breakout" often came to mind, as did "magical." In 228 innings, he won 20 times and struck out 265. His 2.61 ERA and .769 winning percentage were among baseball's best. To no one's surprise, Johan took the AL Cy Youngeasily over Curt Schilling, earning all 28 first-place votes. He got a new four-year deal from the Twins for his efforts.
Johan’s 2005 numbers weren’t that far off his previous year's stats. He continued winning through April, running his consecutive victory streak to a remarkable 17. The Twins, however, didn’t have the team to stay in the AL Central race. The White Sox got hot early and stayed hot well into August. By then, Minnesota—originally the preseason favorite—was still hanging around .500. They finished third in the division at 83-79.
Johan went 16-7—along with 10 no-decisions—fanned a league-high 238 batters and finished with a sparkling 2.85 ERA. In a June start against the Indians, he fanned 14 batters to tie his career high. At season’s end, the Cy Young race came down to Johan, Bartolo Colon and Mariano Rivera. Colon—who went 21-8—ended up taking home the hardware.
There was little question who the AL's top pitcher was in 2006. Johan had a lights-out campaign for the Twins, who fought back from the depths of the AL Central to overtake the Detroit Tigers in the final week. With an offense powered by Mauer, Hunter and Justin Morneau, Minnesota offered its pitchers plenty of support on the way to a 96-win season.
Of Johan's six losses, only one came after the All-Star break. With their ace leading th way, the Twins rocketed into first place.
Minnesota joined the Tigers, A's and Red Sox in the playoffs. It was not a particularly strong AL field. As Twins fans iled into the MetroDome for the opening game of their Division Series against Oakland, they had reason to fantasize about a World Series berth. Those dreams began to melt away when the A's scored a pair of early runs against Johan. Barry Zito made them stand up in a 3–2 victory. The Twins then lost the next two contests to end their season.
With four division crowns in five years, the Twins had defied the odds time and again. Their thin margin of error caught up with them in 2007, when they struggled to stay above the .500 mark. Minnesota battled successfully through injuries until late August, when a three-game sweep by the Indians put the clubout of playoff contention. The Twins finished at a disappointing 79-83.
Without a pennant race to hone his pitching edge, Johan was not his usual self. He allowed the occasional rally and lost the occasional game that would have been unthinkable in past seasons. Johan ended the year just two games above .500 at 15-13. His 3.33 ERA and 235 strikeouts were imporessive stats, but he got hit hard at times, too. Johan's 33 home runs allowed led the majors.
Johan did have some spectacular games, including a 17-strikeout performance against the Texas Rangers in August. He also made the All-Star team for the third year in a row.
Johan's diminished numbers—along with the fact that he was entering the walk year of his contract—fueled rumors that the Twins might put him on the postseason trading block. After failing to sign him to an extension, the club began talks with several teams, including Boston and both New York clubs. Though the Mets were considered the dark horse in this race, it became clear that the Red Sox and Yankees would not part with their top prospects. Talks between the Twins and Mets heated up. New York ultiamtely gave up Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber and a couple of other minor leaguers.
Johan was as good as advertised in his first season with the Mets. He beat the Marlins on Opening Day in Florida and filled the bill as the team's topper all year long. In a game against the Cardinals a day after the Mets had emptied their bullpen in a 14-inning struggle, Johan twirled a complete game victory. In September, as the Mets tried to hold off the Phillies, Johan three-hit the Marlins on short rest to keep the team's hopes alive. It was his last appearance of the year, and completed second half in which he went undefeated.
What no on knew was that Johan won that game and several others on a bad left knee; he underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus the day after the season ended. Johan finished his first year in New York with a 16–7 record and a league-leading 2.54 ERA. He also led the NL with 34 starts and 234 1/3 innings pitched. The Mets, who held first place from mid-August to mid-September, fell short of a division title by two games. New York's bullpen deserved much of the blame—they failed to hold seven leads for Johan, costing him a 20-win season.
The 2009 season began with high hopes when Johan won his second Mets opener. By late August, however, the team had sunk into fourth place despite a 13–9, 3.13 season from their ace. At that point the Mets decided to shut down Johan, who was laboring with a sore elbow. He underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips and rested up over the winter.
The 2010 season saw the Mets struggle for the second year in a row. Johan's number were good—he kept his ERA under 3.00—but the wins were hard to come by and once again he was pitching in pain. Doctors discovered a tear in his rotator cuff and in mid-September Johan went under the knife. Mets fans hoped he would be ready to return by the end of 2011, but with a third straight losing season, the team saw no reason to rush him back to the majors.
Johan finally made it back for Opening Day in 2012. Working on a strict pitch count, he threw quality innings and kept his team in games as he built up his strength and command. On May 26th, he put together his best game in years, shutting out the light-hitting Padres.
Johan's next start was literally one for the books. In their 50-plus seasons, the Mets had never had a no-hitter. It had become so much a part of their culture that fans simply assumed it would never happen. Johan took the mound against the Cardinals and had full command of his changeup, while his fastball was jumping all over the strike zone. He retired one St. Louis hitter after another, getting a great catch from Mike Baxter in left field and a generous call from the third base umpire on a hot shot by Carlos Beltran.
Johan had exceeded his pitch count by the end of the seventh inning, but with a no-hitter going there was no way manager Terry Collins was going to pull him. The Mets had a big lead and Johan would stay in until he lost the no-no. He took the mound in the ninth inning facing the meat of the St. Louis lineup. He retired Matt Holliday and Allen Craig on soft flies to the outfield, and then finished off David Freese with a filthy changeup.
The 2012 Mets don't look like much on paper, but with a mostly homegrown lineup and clutch performances from both their stars and scrubs, they look like a team that could make some noise—or at least give their fans something to cheer about all summer. Johan is a huge part of that success. His return from oblivion gives the team a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter, and a veteran who leads with both words and actions.
JOHAN THE PITCHER
Typically, the difference in velocity between a fastball and a good changeup is 10 to 12 mph. Johan’s often differ by 20 mph. His change also moves, so even if a hitter gets lucky and sits on the pitch, there is no guarantee he can hit it.
With the remarkable control Johan has developed, he's also built the confidence to junk a pitch when it isn’t working. More than once, he has gone through entire games without employing his changeup. Johan's mistakes are likely to come on his exploding fastball. The result is a foul ball more often than a long ball.
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