Manager Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell couldn’t have asked for a better turnout from Santana against the Mets — a club he had faced just once in his American League-centric career of nine MLB seasons (prior to Wednesday).
For the night, Santana cruised through eight stress-free innings of scoreless ball, never encountering more than four New York hitters in any stanza. As such, his first 20 pitches went as strikes … and not a single Mets runner advanced past second base on Santana’s watch.
"In the bullpen (warming up), I was all over the place," said Santana, who notched 65 strikes for his 88-pitch outing. "But when I step on the lines, I focus and just throw strikes."
Aside from the first inning, Santana (three hits allowed, six strikeouts) had been operating with a lead at every turn, working through advantages that exponentially grew (one run, two runs, four runs) whenever Jason Heyward came up to bat.
Or so it seemed.
In the 1st, Heyward crushed a leadoff homer to right field off Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler, the culmination of a thrilling 11-pitch at-bat. Two innings later, he laced a ho-hum single (no runs); and then in the magical 5th, his RBI double boosted the Braves’ lead to two.
A few minutes later, after a Mets confab on the mound, Heyward scored the Braves’ fourth run (third of the inning) — thanks to Freddie Freeman’s two-RBI double — which seemingly erased any lingering doubts about Santana securing his first victory with Atlanta (5-3 overall).
For good measure, Heyward (3 for 4) robbed Mets All-Star David Wright of an RBI opportunity in the sixth inning, snagging a diving catch on a ball that looked like an automatic gap double upon contact. But Heyward, feeling good all around, skillfully corralled Atlanta’s No. 2-ranked defensive gem of the game.
(More on that category winner in a bit.)
When asked if he had any doubts about hauling in Wright’s blast in the 6th, Heyward offered a short, but firm response to the media: "Yes … if it wasn’t going out (of the stadium)."
With the Royals last year, spanning 32 starts, Santana (nine wins, 3.24 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 161/51 K-BB rate) pitched at least seven innings 18 times; and of those endurance outings, the Dominican Republic native surrendered just three or fewer runs 16 times.
In that vain, it should surprise no one that Santana went so long in his 2014 debut, despite missing a sizable chunk of spring training (free agent).
"Everything was where I wanted," said Santana, who also tallied a base hit at the plate. "For the most part, kept the ball down."
Santana’s proficiency was hardly lost on Gonzalez after the game.
"Usually in your first start, things are scattered (around)," explained Gonzalez, "but he had command, he commanded his pitches … changes speed on his pitches. It’ll be nice to see him another 27 or 28 times (on the mound)."
There’s an added element of genuine awe here: Santana got rocked for five earned runs and four walks in his lone "rehab" start in the minors (April 4) … before getting the MLB call for Atlanta.
In a perfect world, Atlanta relievers Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel would have stifled New York’s hit-or-miss lineup, preserving Santana’s sweet shutout heading into the 9th.
Instead, they had to sweat out a potentially calamitous stanza that featured four Mets hits (all singles), one walk and eight total batters — including the potential go-ahead run on first base (Travis d’Arnaud) at one point.
In golf, these tenuous experiences are known as character builders. But Walden (three seasonal appearances before Wednesday) and Kimbrel (five days between outings) badly needed to get the proverbial lead out … in a relatively pressure-free situation.
That’s not to say the tone of this piece wouldn’t have been dramatically different if Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada (0 for 4) had somehow registered a two-out hit in the 9th, scoring Curtis Granderson from third for the game-tying run.
In the post-game media scrum, Gonzalez acknowledged the rarity of seeing Kimbrel struggle somewhat during tense situations.
"But he got the save, he got the last guy (Tejada) on a strikeout."
The larger point: After reasonable success to start things up last year, Kimbrel then had to survive three blown saves in late April and early May before going on a staggering roll — allowing just one run over his next 48 appearances … while collecting 37 saves in that span.
Over time, Kimbrel needed a short-term kick in the pants before finishing with 50 saves, a 1.21 ERA and 0.88 WHIP.
The above comment may seem like a put-down, since Russell stands as one of the NFL draft’s most notorious flops in recent memory.
But before the LSU alum became a party punchline as the Raiders’ one-time savior — never mind that Oakland passed on Calvin Johnson AND Adrian Peterson for Round 1 of the 2007 draft — he wowed a ton of scouts and high-profile draftniks at his Pro Day, completing passes with remarkable precision and then exhibiting otherworldly arm strength … by throwing a rainbow spiral 70 yards while resting on one knee.
Here’s the scene from Simmons’ amazing play: With Lucas Duda on first base and two outs, d’Arnaud (0 for 3) lined a hot shot between third baseman Chris Johnson and the shortstop.
"That’s (an example of) wanting to catch the baseball. That’s wanting to get the out," marveled Gonzalez.
As perhaps the most gifted defensive infielder in baseball, Simmons — last year’s Gold Glove winner — might have produced the best singular moment of a brief, but brilliant career at the sport’s most demanding position.
OK, so maybe catcher is more physically taxing … which brings us to the Benito Santiago reference:
In his heyday with the Padres, Marlins, Reds, Phillies and Blue Jays, Santiago (1986-2005) had an absurd knack for tossing out would-be-base-thieves from one knee, behind the plate.
The only knock on Santiago’s decorated career: He never got the chance to throw anyone out from deep in the shortstop hole … or toss a football 70 yards on one knee for NFL scouts.