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Inches and Miles

We didn’t miss winning Friday night’s ballgame by much. Another inch or so batwise, and either Wright or Davis gets much more than a sacrifice fly in the first and we’re tied at three. The pitcher’s glove that deflects Jerry Hairston’s grounder away from Ruben Tejada keeps a runner off base in advance of Luis Cruz’s first-ever home run in the third. And a more generous, possibly more accurate call at second by the revered Jim Joyce when Andre Ethier was probably tagged out by Daniel Murphy (who did his job a helluva lot better than Josh Thole) means a runner who becomes a run is erased. Oh, and throw in however close Terry Collins came to writing VALDESPIN on his lineup card but failed to as another measurement by which a game of inches inched into the Dodgers’ column [1].

But even had the Mets gotten the microbreaks they needed to effect a grand-scale comeback or prevent the need for anything overly dramatic, a theoretical win against L.A. wouldn’t have felt free-and-clear fabulous, not when Johan Santana was pitching as he was pitching.

Dreadful was how he was pitching. As dreadful as he’s pitched in a Mets uniform, probably, and that includes those horrible Yankee Stadium starts and the last two games when he also surrendered six earned runs. Those six-packs weren’t as resolutely flat as this one. You could kind of blame the ankle tripping him up against the Cubs at Citi Field [2] right before the All-Star break and note that until C.B. Bucknor brought his inept magic to bear in Atlanta he was doing pretty well at Turner Field [3].

Nothing, however, was doing here against the Dodgers. The game of inches — even the inches to which Johan contributed with his glove on the “other” Hairston’s ball — didn’t reflect the miles that were missing from his pitches, particularly that home run to Cruz. Changeup or not, a Johan Santana delivery at 73 MPH, by SNY’s reckoning, is too slow to be believed or to be of any use. No wonder Luis Cruz looked like Matt Kemp…who, unfortunately, looked a lot like Matt Kemp when he took Johan over the wall on another pitch that appeared thrown in Super Slo Mo.

One pet theory of mine is Johan could have pitched better, but he was showing solidarity with Miguel Batista in advance of the kind of outing we all expect Saturday. Another wishful thought is Johan wanted to boost his bullpen’s confidence by setting the bar low and then giving them plenty of innings in which to stretch out. What a perfect teammate he is! But no, I’m pretty sure Johan’s night of misery was genuinely unintentionally wrought. That was really and truly bad pitching, and the postgame interrogations of Collins and Santana didn’t yield much in the way of understanding beyond “something’s wrong” and “we’ll try to figure it out.”

One explanation I will not accept is the 134 pitches thrown seven weeks earlier were lethal. Hogwash. As the handy chart printed here [4] illustrates, three starts after Santana’s nine innings of no-hit, shutout ball versus the Cardinals on June 1, Johan threw six innings of four-hit, shutout ball against the Orioles; the start after that, it was six innings of five-hit, two-run ball dropped on the Cubs, blemished only by the evil Joe Mather; the start after that, these very Dodgers — or a Kempless, Ethierless facsimile — were subject to eight innings of three-hit, shutout ball. Santana’s had his downs since the night of The First No-Hitter In New York Mets History, but he crafted several legitimate ups along the way.

If something’s wrong, it isn’t from an extra 15 to 20 pitches seven weeks ago only now truly getting the best of him. I’d have bought it if the lousy start against the Yankees and the lousy start against the Rays had been followed by this lousy start. But he looked very good twice, pretty darn good (save for Mather) once and good enough to have escaped, save for ankles and Bucknors, another two times.

But if you’d like to use 134 pitches as your crutch (and I’m not a doctor, athletic trainer or pitching coach, I just play one on Faith and Fear, so how would I know what’s right and what’s wrong?) and tell me oh dear, that extra inning worth of exertion was too much strain for the surgically repaired shoulder, there goes the man’s career, there goes our season and present irrefutable evidence to support your assertion, I’d have nothing to say except what Lyndon Johnson had to say in 1963 [5] in response to fears that he’d expend too much political capital too early in his unforeseen presidency if he attempted to push controversial civil rights legislation through a recalcitrant Congress:

“Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Except replace “the presidency” with “a great pitcher” and switch out “controversial civil rights legislation” for “long dreamed of franchise milestone whose fruition is as cherished in its existence as it was in fantasy”.

He’s Johan. He’ll figure it out.

If you need me for anything else, I’ll be in 405 this afternoon, cradling Edgardo Alfonzo’s bobblehead so it doesn’t fly off with Miguel Batista’s real one. Come say hi if you’re in the vicinity. I’ll be wearing No. 13 and loudly inquiring of Terry, should his lineup be yet again lacking the Human Thunderbolt, “Well, what the hell’s Jordany Valdespin for?”