On Sunday afternoon, Terry Collins was thrust into a tough situation. Steven Matz carried a no-hitter against the Padres into the eighth inning. It was obviously a good problem to have, as the Mets happened to be winning at the time too. However, Matz had 101 pitches under his belt already after fanning Jabari Blash to move five outs from just the second no-hitter in franchise history. Matz threw 120 pitches in his most recent start and has suffered from bone spurs this year. Was it really worth risking injury for a no-hitter?
Fortunately for Collins, Alexei Ramirez rendered this point moot by breaking up Matz’s bid with a ground-ball single to right on his 105th offering. The post-game questions about Matz still brought one name from the Mets’ recent past to mind: Johan Santana. It was, of course, just a few years ago that the resurgent lefty snapped the Mets’ 50-year no-hit drought with his gem on June 1, 2012.
The story of Santana’s no-hitter has been spun into a cautionary tale, as he needed 134 pitches to get through it. He missed all of 2011 with shoulder surgery, and two months after the no-no, he made his last career start. Santana eventually needed another shoulder surgery and despite multiple comeback attempts, he has yet to return to a big-league mound. So the story has been that Santana’s grueling effort to complete the no-hitter caused damage to his shoulder, thus crippling the remainder of his career.
As numerous Met fans have brought up time and time again though, the story is not that simple. A high pitch count is not what sent Santana’s career to the pits. The Mets did what they could to give Santana a reprieve after the outing. He had six days of rest before his next outing and pitched with one extra day of rest twice during the remainder of June. He had a bad game against a Yankees offense that crushed 245 homers but still ended up with a 3.60 ERA and .727 OPS against over five starts in the remainder of June.
Santana was healthy, and there appeared to be little cause for concern regarding his no-hitter at that point. The problems only started on July 6 against the Cubs. Naturally, it was Mets nemesis Reed Johnson who did the damage. He hit a leadoff homer, but importantly, he hit a weak grounder between the pitcher’s mound and first base in the fifth inning.
Johnson ran over Santana’s ankle to get the base hit. Santana took some warm-up pitches and stayed in the game. He then promptly allowed hits to six of the next seven batters to put the game out of reach. The 2012 All-Star Game gave him a little rest between starts, but he was smoked by the Braves and the Dodgers in his next two appearances.
The Mets then placed Santana on the DL with a right ankle sprain. The suggestion that the no-hitter caused his struggles was already out there, but Santana, Collins, and the Mets all pointed to the ankle injury as the real culprit:
The Mets believe the injury has caused Santana’s surgically repaired shoulder to become fatigued, and he needs to rest and build up arm strength.
“Ever since the ankle injury, basically he’s lost his command,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “We don’t think he can land properly … he is using all arm to pitch with, causing some fatigue in his shoulder, (but) no pain. There’s just nothing there.”
It’s not surprising that the ankle injury forced adjustments to his pitching motion. In a similar instance of a much more publicized ailment leading to something worse, the Yankees’ Chien-Ming Wang suffered a Lisfranc injury running the bases in 2008. Its subsequent effects on his delivery during rehab partlially led to the shoulder problems that ruined his career.
Santana suffered the same fate. He never quite got his mechanics back together, and after two more rocky starts in August, his Mets career was over. As it stands, Santana had an 8.27 ERA in the 10 starts after his no-hitter, providing an easy statistic for critics to reference. The July 6 ankle injury is constantly overlooked though, as again, he was fine for the rest of June following the no-hitter.
Santana’s shoulder was always going to be a risk as well, given the severity of the 2011 surgery. One long outing wasn’t going to be the difference-maker. Santana is far from the only pitcher in his mid-30s to have a night like that. For example, 36-year-old Chris Carpenters threw 132 pitches in a complete game on June 29, 2011. He was also a pitcher with a lengthy injury history. He luckily did not have any pesky outfielders stomp on his ankle and pitched to 2.93 ERA for the remainder of the season. Carpenter then helped pitch St. Louis to a World Series title.
It’s certainly not impossible for the no-hitter to have affected Santana, but given the circumstances surrounding the rest of his 2012 campaign, it doesn’t seem right to pin his rapid decline on pitch count. It’s hardly definitive that pitch counts in that range instantly lead to injury. Regardless, Santana himself has no regrets. He had the opportunity to accomplish history. Some analysts might criticize the prestige of a no-hitter these days, but they still definitely matter to the players and countless fans.
Collins might feel some regret over the no-hitter given the way the media reacted to the pitch count instead of the subsequent ankle injury. If Matz’s pitch count ran much further, Collins said he “wasn’t gonna visit the Johan Santana scenario again,” suggesting that he might have been pulled early. Provided that there aren’t any freak injuries in Matz’s future though, he probably would have been fine if he kept the no-hitter and remained in the game.
The myth of Santana’s downfall being the result of pitch count needs to die. Regrettably, based off the reactions to Matz’s no-hit attempt, it seems like it is here to stay.
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