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Armed, Yes, But Dangerous?

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What remains unknowable is how Santana will handle the Shea Stadium pressure cooker. Expectations are too high. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover in February and used the headline the savior of port st. lucie. Rick Peterson rhapsodizes about the healing power of his new ace. “When we got Johan, it was like going into instant remission,” Peterson says. “It was almost like a divine healing, it was almost like a miracle drug that took away the horrific feeling.”

In interviews, Santana focuses on baseball, giving up little of himself. It’s understandable. He comes from a dissension-ravaged country where even the good times can be frightening: When Santana returned to Tovar after winning his first Cy Young, a joyous mob had him fearing for his safety. When I asked him an innocuous question as to whether his wife and kids are going to join him in New York, he wouldn’t answer.

“I’m always happy to talk to you guys,” Santana told reporters after his first spring start. He paused a beat. “As long as we have something to talk about and it’s not just hanging out.”

Even if Santana has another Cy Young year and Maine and Perez do not regress, that’s only three-fifths of the battle. One cloudy morning, Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez, the halt and lame portion of the Mets’ starting rotation, work out in a back field.

The Dominican and the Cuban exile share a reputation for playoff valor, hissy fits, and ruinous injuries that have left the Mets bereft at crucial moments over the last two seasons. The two are pals from way back and diva soul mates. If the Mets can cajole 50 to 60 starts out of this aging couple, they’ll contend. If they don’t, well there’s always the food court at Citi Field to look forward to in 2009.

Today, one is happy, one is sad. On a practice mound, El Duque goes into his famous-to-Yankees-fans Mr. Knee–meet–Mr. Chin leg kick, an homage to Latino legends Luis Tiant and Juan Marichal. But this time, El Duque drops his pitching leg and groans. He has a bunion the size of a plump strawberry on the second toe of his pitching foot. It’s not quite Sinatra with a cold, but it is a great concern for the Mets. Hernandez is 38, 42, or 59, depending on which birth certificate you believe. He is one of the great playoff pitchers in history, but he hasn’t pitched 200 innings, the starting pitcher’s gold standard, since 1999. The bunion cost him the last month of 2007.

There were reports last October that El Duque had the bunion removed, but when he arrived in Port St. Lucie there it was, big and ugly. The Mets owe Hernandez $6.5 million for 2008, a stiff bill for an ancient pitcher penciled in as the team’s fifth starter. All the Mets can do is hope. Today, that’s not much. On the mound, Hernandez paces, wipes his bald head with his forearm, and tries again. He stops mid-motion and grumbles in Spanish. Martinez watches from the other side of the fence with some concern, but remains in a happy mood. He plays long toss with a bull-pen catcher, sporadically throwing it over the catcher’s head, perhaps on purpose. As the catcher fetches, Martinez shouts, “¡Arriba, arriba!

Three Cy Youngs and 209 wins in, Martinez is clearly nuts, Brian Wilson–in–a–sandbox nuts. But this spring it’s a happy nuts. Martinez spent all of last year manically rehabbing the shredded tendons in his pitching shoulder. He won three of five starts in September, only to see his teammates spit the bit. Now in the final year of the four-year, $53 million contract that heralded the Mets’ renaissance, Martinez seems hell-bent on enjoying himself.

When El Duque mopes over to Martinez’s field to throw to some minor leaguers, Martinez playfully screams, “¡Vámonos, vámonos!” El Duque does not pick up the pace. Then Martinez chants, “That’s how we play baseball here, that’s how we play baseball here!”

El Duque is unamused. He throws a few pitches and sulks off. A few days later, Peterson revamps his motion in hopes of easing his pain. The high leg kick is replaced by a more conventional windup. Peterson insists it will have no bearing on Hernandez’s ability to disguise his pitches, but admits it could leave psychological scars. “I think the leg kick was a creative expression for him,” Peterson tells me. “Now he knows he has to change, and he’s wondering, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ The body starts not responding, and it gets damn depressing. But he’s coming around. I don’t think it will affect his ability to be successful.” Maybe not, but no one can remember another pitcher’s so severely altering his motion this late in his career and being successful.


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