NEW YORK -- Given Johan Santana's two consecutive stumbles since pitching his no-hitter, the Mets would have considered any adequate outing on Tuesday a success. As it was, Santana gave his team something more, firing six shutout innings in a 5-0 victory over the Orioles at Citi Field.
Consider it an emotional lift of the highest order. Since recording the first no-hitter in franchise history June 1 against the Cardinals, Santana had pitched a total of 10 innings, serving up 10 runs and 13 hits while struggling with his command. Though the sample size was two starts, manager Terry Collins blamed himself, saying he should not have disrupted the left-hander's rhythm after Santana threw a career-high 134 pitches in his no-no.
"That no-hitter took it out of him," Collins said. "I'm not sure the adrenaline didn't wipe him out for the whole week."
Perhaps now, Santana's early-season rhythm has returned. The left-hander faced little adversity throughout his six innings, striking out five, walking two and allowing four hits.
His only serious jam came in the fourth inning, when J.J. Hardy singled and Matt Wieters doubled to put two runners in scoring position with one out. But Santana struck out the next two batters to end the threat, throwing seven of his 33 changeups in those two at-bats alone.
"He does that once he gets into any type of bind," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Santana's reliance on his best pitch. "It's a testament to how good he is when you know pretty much what he is going to do and he is still able to do it."
Had Santana not put two more runners on base in the sixth inning -- ultimately wriggling out of that jam as well -- Collins said he would have sent his lefty out for the seventh. As it was, Santana threw 101 mostly stress-free pitches, improving his fastball command on the inner half of the plate.
"He's kind of back in his routine," Collins said. "I think now he's back doing what he's got to do. We're going to see a lot of nights like tonight where you're going to see some zeros on the board when he's out there."
The bullpen received a comfortable cushion in the bottom of the sixth, when Lucas Duda launched a two-run homer to right field off Tommy Hunter, who retired eight in a row to open the game but gave up four of his five runs in the sixth and seventh innings. Jordany Valdespin drove in the latter two with a ground-ball single off reliever Dana Eveland, after Hunter put both runners on base.
Of greatest import to the Mets, however, was the performance of their starting pitcher. Though Santana has not suffered any physical setbacks in his first season back from left shoulder surgery, the Mets have continued to monitor his health on a daily basis. Throwing 134 pitches in a start was an aberration that Collins hoped, prayed and pleaded would not affect the rest of Santana's season -- though with precious little data on shoulder capsule surgeries, the Mets at least had to consider the worst.
But Tuesday's outing was an indication that all may yet be well with Santana, who moved to 5-3 on the season and dropped his ERA to 3.00.
On the heels of R.A. Dickey's second consecutive one-hitter, it also allowed the Mets to reflect on their rotation with one of the game's most formidable one-two punches at its head. For more than a month now, Dickey has performed as the league's best pitcher -- and it hasn't been particularly close. If Santana can resemble any shadow of his old self while throwing directly behind Dickey in the rotation, the Mets may be able to pull off many more two-day coups such as this.
"That's what they do," Duda said. "They just have to continue to be themselves and we'll be fine."
"He's making history and it's always good," Santana said of Dickey. "I'm just trying to follow."
It is largely because of the two hurlers that the Mets are on the verge of their second sweep in four series, with Dillon Gee starting in Wednesday's finale. And while they would ultimately like to avoid the pattern they have established in recent weeks -- sweep, be swept, sweep, be swept -- it is a comfort for the Mets to proceed with two potential stoppers on their roster.
As Showalter put it, "That's not the first time Dickey and Santana have pitched well this season. And it won't be the last."