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Santana Flouts Game’s Evil Ways

Johan Santana is in an odd spot in his second season as the New York Mets' pitching ace. He is more comfortable now than he was last season with his teammates, his surroundings and the pressures inherent in signing a six-year, $137.5 million contract with a major-market club.

Yet at the same time, he is facing struggles he's never experienced since emerging as one of baseball's top pitchers five years ago. Santana is mired in the worst six-start stretch of his career, at a time the injury-riddled Mets need him most.

He and the team know what's at stake.

"The one thing I learned about New York, you always have to be at the top of your game," Santana says. "The intensity of the game is always high. I like that. I know the expectations."

The Mets' season doesn't totally hinge on Santana, 30, who racked up three American League strikeout titles and unanimous Cy Young awards in 2004 and 2006 with the Minnesota Twins before he was traded to the Mets in 2008.

But at a time when speedy shortstop Jose Reyes (torn hamstring), power-hitting first baseman Carlos Delgado (hip surgery), setup man J.J. Putz (elbow surgery) and starter John Maine (shoulder weakness) are disabled, the Mets, losers of eight of 12 entering Tuesday, desperately need Santana to be his old self. They were 32-29 going into Tuesday and had fallen four games behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East.

Things looked far sunnier not long ago.

Through May 11, Santana's ERA was 0.78, and he was throwing a virtually unhittable changeup. Even through June 2, his ERA was 2.00. But his fastball's velocity - critical to the changeup's ability to upset batters' timing - has dipped into the 89- to 91-mph range, and his location is off. His ERA has ballooned.

The first red flag came June 9, when he gave up a career-high four home runs in a win against the Phillies. Sunday at Yankee Stadium, he was hammered for a career-worst nine runs and the Mets got routed by the New York Yankees 15-0.

The Mets are confident the rough patch is just that and that there are no long-term concerns regarding his left knee, on which he had surgery in October, or a blister on the middle finger of his throwing hand.

"He'll get it all figured out," Mets manager Jerry Manuel says. "He carried us for a while this season, and he'll get back to that. I think Johan is just like anybody else - going through a little period of struggle. The way he was pitching in April, it was the most dominating for a period of time that I've seen."

Santana and catcher Brian Schneider say the issue is pitch location, which can be ironed out in a bullpen session this week; Santana's next start is set for Saturday vs. the Tampa Bay Rays.

"I'm going to make adjustments, work on mechanics and make better pitches," he says.

Keeping up morale

Santana might see his worry-free attitude as setting an important tone. Early last season, Santana was trying to fit in during a season that saw manager Willie Randolph fired in June. "Everyone knew what I was capable of doing on the field," he says, "but they didn't know the type of person I was."

Since then, Santana has been behaving more like he did while with the Twins from 2000 to 2007. When he is not in the weight room, he jokes with teammates, talks with reporters and keeps the mood light.

"At the All-Star break last season, he just decided to be himself, get us back winning and set a precedent," Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen says. "He's confident, and he's showing us that you aren't supposed to be playing baseball for a contract. You are supposed to be having fun as if you are in the sandlots."

The Mets have been haunted by late-season collapses each of the last two Septembers. So humor, third baseman David Wright says, goes a long way. "Johan's numbers speak for themselves. He's the hardest worker I've ever seen. Yet he's always laughing and having a good time. That's what we need."

Mechanics of deception

When Santana is rolling, he has a 94-mph fastball, a slider and a changeup that baffles hitters because his mechanics keep batters from seeing what's coming.

"He throws two different changeups: one that he throws for a strike, and the other that bites away from a right-handed batter," Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman says. "He makes hitters swing at balls that look like strikes, and then, just like that, they are out of the zone."

Santana says his changeup differs from most in that he grips it just as he does a fastball. "Hitters are smart," he says. "They can pick up on things. So I throw a four-seam changeup, just like I throw a four-seam fastball. The position of the ball (in my hand) is the same as my fastball."

The changeup also puts less stress on Santana's arm, and that, combined with his flawless mechanics, bodes well for him to be effective for years to come.

Now a Manhattanite

Santana moved from Long Island to Manhattan this season with his wife, Yasmile, and their children, Jasmily, 7, Jasmine, 4, and Johan Jr., who was born a couple of days before his dad had to leave for spring training.

Until last week, Santana hadn't seen Johan since before spring training, trying to settle for daily updates via pictures on his cellphone. "People don't always understand how baseball takes you away from your family," Santana says. "As a father, I want to be with my kids, but I also want them to be proud of what I do."

Now he's looking forward to city life. "Coming from Venezuela, it's hard to believe," he says. "New York is a city that you have to be patient with, but I like it. I like going downtown, being on the street and seeing people from different countries and cultures."

It's a long way from Tovar, a town of 33,000 in the mountains of Venezuela where his parents - Jesus, an electrician, and Hilda - raised five children. Jesus was an amateur shortstop who traveled for work, leaving him not much of a chance to see his kids play.

Now it's Santana's family that watches him play and provides perspective.

Before Tuesday's game at the Baltimore Orioles, Santana was at his locker, ribbing a news reporter about his bright blue sneakers. Then Santana pulled out his own sneakers to point out that he had his Venezuelan nickname, "El Gocho" - which means cowboy or hillbilly - in orange stitching on the back.

He was smiling. Sunday's pounding by the Yankees wasn't easy to take, but he's learned how to put it behind him. And besides, he couldn't be angry for long when he saw his family.

"Johan Jr. has changed a lot, and he's so much fun," Santana says. "Good to have him around. It's fun to watch his eyes as he tries to figure it all out."

His dad is trying to do the same.

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