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Does Santana regret coming to N.Y.?

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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Johan Santana has said all the right things this season, fulfilled every obligation as the Mets’ ace and clubhouse leader. Even as the his team struggles to stay out of the NL East’s basement, Santana keeps rolling along with a 2.76 ERA, carving a path right to Cooperstown’s doorstep.

Or is he? Santana’s continuing problems with run support conjures what would’ve been an unthinkable scenario even two years ago -- that because the great lefthander is winning games at a slower pace now, his chances at the Hall of Fame may be suffering.

You could be conservative and say the Mets have cost Santana a dozen victories since 2008. A more realistic estimate would be 15 or even 20. At age 31, Santana is bogged down at 126 wins for his career, so it’s fair to wonder if he’s going to reach the magical 200.

Numbers aside, Santana is still one of the game’s 10 best pitchers. In that sense he passes a critical Cooperstown litmus test: Was he dominant in his era? But the bloc of voters who take a numbers-only approach to Cooperstown is growing, which means Santana will need another surge like he had between 2004-2006, when he won 55 games.

But Santana was 25-27 years old then, back when he had killer velocity to go along with his unhittable change-up. Talent evaluators generally agree Santana is beyond that Twins-era prime, having lost that explosive 94-mph fastball. He still commands both sides of the plate, however, even if the gap between his four-seamer and change-up has narrowed from 14 to 10 mph.

Even so, Santana can flourish at 91 mph, or even a tick below. There’ve been five separate occasions this year where Santana hasn’t allowed an earned run. But he has just one win to show for it while the Mets have gone 2-3. In his last five starts, Santana has an 0.74 ERA, but has picked up just one win. The Mets are 1-4 in that span.

So the question really goes beyond the Hall, and instead centers around Santana’s present-day state of mind. Is he happy as a Met? Would he have been happier if he’d remained with the Twins?

Santana, professional that he is, has never once suggested he made a mistake signing with the Mets, but he never thought it would be so tough to rack up wins, either. Santana won 16 games in ’08, fell to 13-9 last year while pitching with a bad elbow and is only 4-2 so far in 2010.

No Met can explain why Santana gets so little support, but each no-decision or blown save seems more heartbreaking than the last. The most recent was almost too surreal to believe: the Mets were within one pitch of securing a 2-1 win over the Padres on Wednesday -- before Francisco Rodriguez hung an 0-2 curveball to David Eckstein.

Not only did the Padres’ fierce little second baseman tie the game with a base hit up the middle, it set the stage for Adrian Gonzalez’s walk-off home run in the 11th.

The Mets flew home from another disheartening road trip, 2-4 against San Diego and Milwaukee and dropping their season record away from Citi Field to 8-18.

To his credit, Santana has always tried to stress the positive when asked about his hard luck. He says he enjoys his teammates, and is well aware of the other perks of being a Met. Santana plays in a state of the art ballpark, gets to compete on America’s biggest sports market and has been able to feast on weaker and less aggressive National League hitters.

Santana has also been made wealthy by the Mets, which is why he doesn’t expect anyone to feel sorry for him. That six-year, $137.5 million contract he signed two years ago made Santana the richest pitcher in baseball at the time.

Baseball Hot Streak

But he never expected the Mets to choke away the ’08 season to the Phillies. And he certainly never foresaw the injuries that destroyed the ’09 season. Now the Mets are relatively healthy again, but they seem to be on a .500 road to nowhere.

Today, any reasonable Mets fan has to wonder if Santana is harboring second thoughts. Not that he made choice gratuitously -- he was so intent on getting every last penny of that $132.5 million he was ready to walk away over $5 million.

Wilpon tried to reason with Santana, explaining how he was sabotaging a deal with the highest bidder over what amounted to peanuts. Yet, Santana stood firm: Either the Mets pay or he was killing the deal.

Wilpon ultimately relented. Santana was paid in full. But Santana has been on the sidelines for two straight postseasons while the Twins at least won the AL Central and made the Division Series against the Yankees in ’09.

Who knows what Santana thinks when he sees the Twins sitting atop the Central Division? Of course, it’s true that had Santana stayed in Minnesota, the Twins would’ve never had enough money to re-sign Joe Mauer -- so the daydream is hardly realistic. Still, it’s only human nature to examine the choices we make and ask: Did I pick the right path?

Santana has enough respect for the Mets to not ask those questions in public. Still, you wonder. Who wouldn’t?

Tagged: Twins, Mets, Padres, Johan Santana

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