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Mortal on the Mound

In Johan Santana’s last four starts, he has thrown 25.2 innings and allowed 17 earned runs. That’s an ERA of 5.96. So Is Johan Santana not pitching like himself, or is this the way Johan Santana pitches now?

When Johan is smacked around early and digs his team a hole as was the case Saturday afternoon [1], what’s the root cause? After effects of elbow surgery? Well-publicized off-field issues we don’t want to think about but he has to? The distraction of facing his old teammates? A spirit frayed from pitching well so often with no run support (which, for what it’s worth, he didn’t get today either)? Or is it just one of those stretches when great pitchers subtly but decidedly shift into the phase of their careers mortality forces them to struggle through?

I don’t know. When it comes to Johan Santana, I tend to watch through the prism of September 28, 2008, the day when No. 57 carried the Mets on shoulders as broad as the Whitestone Bridge to the doorstep of the promised land. When he completed that instantly legendary three-hit, short-rest shutout on one good knee, I probably made some internal deal that would forgive his inevitable decline across the five years yet to come on the six-year, $137.5 million deal he signed when the Mets adopted him from that nice family in Minnesota that couldn’t afford to keep him.

Swell way for the Twins to pay us back.

Though if was just revenge/familiarity coming home to roost, you’d chalk it up to a silly string of coincidence — Pedro couldn’t beat the Red Sox in 2006, just as fellow Cy Youngsmen T#m Gl@v!ne, Randy Jones and Warren Spahn couldn’t rack up a W vs. their old teams in their first starts against them as Mets, according to the club’s helpful media relations department. It would be as good an explanation as any…of course, explanations are always at hand when Johan doesn’t quite have it.

• The Twins (6 IP, 5 ER) are a fine and patient offensive unit.

• So are the Yankees from last weekend’s Santana loss (6 IP, 4 ER), and that was mostly a matter of one inning culminating in Teixeira’s grand slam, which was reminiscent of that one bad inning against the Nationals in April (and that other grand slam, to Josh Willingham).

• The Indians from the week before (7 IP, 4 ER) aren’t any great shakes but they were known to be trouble for Johan in his American League Central days.

• The Padres on June 10 (6.2 IP, 4 ER)? Not a juggernaut, but a first-place team. And Johan was going on eight days rest.

Was he overly amped for the Twins? On the radio, Howie reported his velocity was fine, but his location wasn’t Johanesque. Do the repercussions from the Lee County Sheriff’s office [2] have something to do with his pitching? That’s for Johan to know. The elbow? He himself said the post-surgery recovery [3] is ongoing.

There are many reasons to decide Johan Santana is now a mere mortal, yet he’s also pitched some genuine gems in 2010. In his five starts spanning May 13 to June 2, he was almost spotless: 36.2 innings, 3 earned runs. That’s an ERA of 0.74. That’s the Johan we not just know and love, but had grown to rely on. When we he threw his final pitch on June 2 in San Diego, we felt, per those loathsome New York Life drop-ins, safe and secure anticipating his next start — the Mets might not score for him, but he would keep us in it on his own if he had to…just like he did that soggy Saturday at the end of 2008.

We’re now left to wonder what we’ve got on the one fifth day we thought was above reproach. When he starts again, Johan Santana will not have harvested a gem in nearly a month. On track record, you give Johan every benefit of the doubt, but as Met lefties go, he hasn’t been any more reliable of late than Jon Niese or Hisanori Takahashi. I sorely wish that spoke volumes on behalf of Niese and Takahashi and reflected not at all on any change in the season or career trajectory of Johan Santana.

It’s just four starts. And that aforementioned Nationals start (5 IP, 5 ER) . And the Saturday he felt his way through the Giants’ not-so-imposing batting order (7.2 IP, 4 ER). And that Sunday night disaster against the Phillies (3.2 IP, 10 ER). There have been sixteen Santana starts in all in 2010. Nine of them have approached vintage 2008-2009 Johan (0.73 ERA in 62 innings). Seven of them have been the stuff of pitching mortals (7.71 ERA in 42 innings).

Technically, we’re all mortals. I was just hoping Johan transcended such technicalities.