Santana catches a break in no-hitter

If you want to be technical, Johan Santana’s no-hit bid should have ended in the sixth inning Friday night, when old friend Carlos Beltran pulled a rope down the third-base line. Chalk kicked up. Umpire Adrian Johnson called it foul. Baseball’s expanded instant replay — included in the new collective bargaining agreement, not yet enacted — would have overturned it.

But Santana caught a break. The Mets caught a break. Perhaps most importantly, the Mets fans caught a break. And they all deserved it. In the franchise’s 8,020th game, Santana delivered the no-hitter that eluded the great Tom Seaver and so many Mets for the past five decades.

You could call it a no-hitter with an asterisk.

The Mets will take it.

The lack of a no-hitter had been part of the franchise’s identity. It fit the perception of the Mets as the little brother of New York baseball. The Yankees have 11 no-hitters; former Mets Dwight Gooden and David Cone accounted for two.

In all, seven ex-Mets threw no-hitters after leaving the organization, according to STATS LLC. Seaver and Nolan Ryan are among them.

For those reasons — and others — the Mets have one of the most anguished followings in baseball. Mets fans are conditioned to expect Adrian Johnson will break their hearts by pointing toward fair territory. Only this time, he didn’t.

And so the Flushing faithful were presented with an unannounced holiday, a decidedly un-Met-like occasion: The oft-injured pitcher flourished, the manager seized the moment, the defense executed, the story unfolded perfectly.

Very little had gone right for the Mets since Beltran (as a Met) looked at a called third strike from Adam Wainwright to end the 2006 National League Championship Series. Friday, in a game Wainwright started for St. Louis, Beltran unwittingly helped the Mets celebrate their proudest moment since Jesse Orosco threw his glove in the air.

And it was fitting that Santana became The One. As a Minnesota Twin, Santana was the best pitcher in baseball. Then he signed a $137.5 million contract with the Mets and was beset by injuries. He underwent shoulder surgery. He missed all of last season. Even as he began to regain his old form, the Mets handled him with great care. There were guidelines. There were pitch counts.

Santana had been effective in most of his starts this season. (He took a 2-2 record and 2.75 ERA into Friday’s game.) But last month Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen told my colleague Ken Rosenthal that “the real Johan” wouldn’t return until around June 1.

June 1 was Friday.

As Santana’s mastery of the St. Louis Cardinals continued into the late innings, Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen reminded viewers that the left-hander’s limit was 110 pitches — maybe 115. Cohen mentioned to analysts (and Mets icons) Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez that manager Terry Collins might have to make the unpopular decision of removing Santana with the no-hitter in progress.

Darling couldn’t fathom it. “I feel like it’s a runaway train,” he said. “It’s bigger than anything here.” And he was right. Collins had no choice but to let Santana go for it. In New York, with the no-hit futility dating to 1962, Collins would have been lampooned forever if he had done otherwise.

So Collins acted boldly — which is to say he did nothing, other than sprint to the mound after Rafael Furcal walked in the eighth. Apparently, Collins wanted to be sure his ace was OK. The conversation took about three seconds. Santana stayed in, and now Collins looks like National League Manager of the Year.

The final pitch count, by the way: 134.

For the Mets, the juxtaposition of what was with what is made the moment all the more powerful. Almost exactly one year ago, much of the talk surrounding the team had to do with the Bernie Madoff litigation and a story in The New Yorker in which owner Fred Wilpon criticized stars Beltran, Jose Reyes and David Wright. Of Wright, Wilpon said, “Really good kid. A very good player. Not a superstar.”

Well, Wright is playing like a superstar now. He is batting .366. He is driving in runs. He is in the lineup every day. And he is leading a team for which contention — the kind that goes into September — seems more plausible by the day. The Phillies look old. The Mets seem fresh. And with those 27 outs, Santana managed to remind the nation that the Mets are so much more than a punchline. They are 29-23, and let the record reflect that the team Santana no-hit won the World Series last year. David Freese, last October’s hero, fanned for the final out.

The names of some Mets aren’t all that familiar: Mike Baxter, who injured his shoulder while making a breathtaking catch in the seventh, was viewed as a minor leaguer before hitting .323 this year; Lucas Duda, a seventh-round pick, struck a three-run homer; rookie Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who had two hits Friday, is earning the league minimum to play center field.

Friday, Santana made all of them famous. They were involved in the Mets’ first no-hitter. On this night, it felt like the long wait was worth it.