Then Chavez caught the ball, the scoreboard illuminated a 2-0 victory over the Marlins, and Shea burst into countless orange and blue streaks of noise. Johan Santana, pitching on short rest and in the most significant game of the season, had single-handedly saved the Mets, almost willing them back into a tie for the National League Wild Card lead.
"That's the greatest performance I've ever seen on a baseball field," left fielder Daniel Murphy said. "This was a game that we had to have, and he dominated from start to finish. That's something that I'll remember forever."
So imagine what Santana's memory might do with it.
"That's the way you take care of business," Santana said, shortly after doing precisely that.
Forget the context of Saturday's game, the pennant chases and the playoff implications. Forget all that and consider only this raw fact: Santana pitched a complete-game three-hitter, striking out nine Marlins, and he did it only four days after throwing a career-high 125 pitches against the Cubs. He had thrown on short rest only once before in his career, in a 2004 playoff game with the Twins.
Now consider that Santana did it in front of 54,920 fans at Shea Stadium, all flush with the knowledge that a Saturday loss would almost certainly knock the Mets out of the playoff chase.
"I think we should all buy him dinner tonight," Ryan Church said.
"We knew we had the best pitcher on the mound," Jose Reyes agreed. "Santana, he was unbelievable today."
Believe it. In a performance not unlike John Maine's one-hit masterpiece on the final Saturday of last season, Santana, if only for one day, ensured that the collective pulse of the Mets would keep beating. The win drew the Mets back to within a half-game of the Brewers, then into a tie for the AL Wild Card lead after the Brewers lost to the Cubs.
They could not have done it without Santana, who -- considering all the context and all the implications -- pitched perhaps the finest game of his career.
"I guess what he did today speaks for itself," David Wright said.
It needed to, because Santana wasn't saying much else. Not long after Saturday's game, before emotions had even bubbled back down to a simmer, Mets manager Jerry Manuel sought out his ace in the clubhouse to give him a congratulatory pat. Santana, still deathly focused, did not even turn his head.
"He was just staring straight ahead," Manuel said.
It was a stare that the Marlins came to respect. Despite all concerns about his short rest, Santana approached Shea's mound after a 35-minute rain delay and proceeded to mow down 11 of the first 12 batters he faced. He seemed to grow only stronger as the game went on, striking out Dan Uggla to end the sixth inning and John Baker to complete the eighth, 104 pitches after he had begun.
That much was significant. Manuel said before the game that, considering Santana's heavy workload last time out, he intended to use his ace for no more than 105 pitches. But the Shea crowd, along with that blank stare, rendered such planning useless. Santana jogged out to a roaring reception to begin the ninth inning, struck out Jorge Cantu, and then put the tying run on base with one out.
Another strikeout of Uggla brought up Cody Ross, who scorched a line drive to the warning track in left field, briefly but completely silencing Shea Stadium. Yet Chavez, playing back toward the wall, tracked the ball and secured it in his glove. And Shea erupted.
"I knew the ball was going to be inside the park," Chavez said.
Carlos Delgado had provided the necessary offense in the first inning, plating Reyes with a sacrifice fly, and Ramon Martinez added another run when he doubled home Murphy in the fifth. That was all the Mets needed. And so Santana and catcher Ramon Castro embraced on the mound following that final out, Castro yelling, "We needed that!" into his pitcher's ear. The crowd continued to roar, saluting its newest hero.
|"That's the greatest performance I've ever seen on a baseball field. ... He dominated from start to finish. That's something that I'll remember forever."|
|-- Daniel Murphy, on Johan Santana|
"We both just looked up and we were like, 'This is fun,'" Murphy said. "This is what you put all your work in for -- to be able to do this."
"There was a lot of energy," Reyes agreed. "Like we clinched the playoffs already."
But they haven't. Though the Brewers lost, the playoffs are no done deal. And the Mets know that firsthand, having experienced an eerily similar situation last year. Maine won his game on the final Saturday of the season, drawing his team even with the Phillies, but the Mets lost one day later to complete their historic collapse.
So they relished this win, heaping compliments upon Santana, even without shaking the knowledge of what still lay before them.
"You've got to enjoy it, but you've got to come back and play," Delgado said. "You can't get too high, too soon."
Perhaps on this afternoon, they couldn't quite help it.
"We're still in the race, and that's the most important thing about today's game," Santana said. "It's not over yet."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.