NEW YORK - Everyone was on his feet, so deeply transfixed no one dared to breathe, much less move. Johan Santana was about to unleash his 134th pitch, taking with him a franchise to history's doorstep.
No one need to be reminded what was at stake. The electricity at Citi Field was so thick you could feel it, inhale it, even. Santana was on the verge of the first no-hitter in the Mets' 50-year existence, and all that stood between him and that milestone was one more pitch.
A million fears coursed through manager Terry Collins' mind, but Santana's engine was fueled only by white-hot adrenaline. There was no anxiety about ruining his reconstructed shoulder, no consideration for the career-high pitch count, and certainly no chance - none - that anyone else would finish this 8-0 victory over the Cardinals.
By the seventh inning, the Mets' at-bats were nothing more than a chance for fans to call and text their friends, run to the restroom and otherwise get ready for the history-making moment. By the eighth, Santana had staked his claim, telling Collins after a five-pitch walk to Rafael Furcal, "there was no way he was taking me out. "
He was ready to take on a monstrosity of a curse - an 8,019-game drought during which the Mets had failed to throw a no-hitter. Even the game's giants were no match for this jinx, including Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden and Pedro Martinez. Yet there was Santana, ready to finish off David Freese and, with him, history.
You knew it had to be a change-up. You knew it would be Santana's signature pitch that would bestow upon the Mets a gift that'll last forever. Just as he'd done thousands of times before, Santana unleashed what looked like a fastball to Freese, tricking him with perfect arm-speed, perfect follow-through, front-to-back shoulder rotation that cloaked the ball's actual velocity.
This was no 89-mph four-seamer; it was Santana's 82-mph change-up that Freese swung at. Last year's World Series MVP coiled like a snake, hacking powerfully at the ball - which was no longer there.
The change-up had dropped just under the trajectory of Freese's bat; he connected with nothing but the cool, dry air that'd made the night feel more like October than June. And for a moment, Santana froze, too, unable to process the fates that'd finally been generous.
"It was the most unbelievable feeling in the world," Santana said, describing the riot of his teammates, the human cluster on the mound. The scene was lifted straight out of Animal House, only these were grown men using back-slaps and high-fives as substitutes for tears.
So much had to go right for Santana. So much was reliant upon sheer good luck. Carlos Beltran, for one, had slashed a line drive over third base in the sixth inning - called foul by umpire Adrian Johnson, but, as TV replays showed, was clearly fair.
The ball had kicked up the chalk on the foul line, although Johnson later told reporters, "I saw the ball hitting outside the line, just foul."
When pressed, Johnson said, "Yes, I saw the replay," but declined further comment. With a better, more experienced umpire, the no-hitter would've been over right then and there.
Beltran later said, "When things aren't meant to happen, what can you do. I thought it was a fair ball . the way I saw it, the ball was over the bag, and the replay showed it landed on the line."
The Mets are professional enough to know the authenticity of Santana's achievement is open to debate, but that's not to say they dwelled on its blemish. After a half-century, this was Santana's night - virtual asterisk be damned. In fact, if you didn't believe in karma, the last remaining evidence was Mike Baxter's full-sprint catch of Yadier Molina's line drive to left.
Baxter caught the ball at the wall, crashed into it with such force his shoulder all but exploded; he was escorted off the field and would later be treated for a contusion.
The momentum mushroomed from that point on, the sense of inevitability becoming as powerful as a narcotic, Even 45 minutes after the game, Collins was still feeling swept away, practically in tears describing how he called Santana, "my hero" in the dugout in the seventh inning.
The manager was fully aware of the Santana's pitch-count, and how it was nearing his career-high of 125, set back in 2008. That was before Santana underwent surgery on the anterior capsule in his shoulder, before he was forced to sit out the 2011 season and wonder what was in store in 2012.
The Mets promised themselves Santana would be treated gently this summer; he was the bridge to respectability and there would be nothing that could tempt the Mets into any other strategy. Except, of course, a no-hitter in the making.
Collins shook his head and said, "I just couldn't take him out." Not even as Santana had reached 121 pitches after the eighth.
The ninth inning was tension and torture, bundled in a way that made you remember why you fell in love with baseball in the first place. Santana was presented with a gift by Matt Holliday, who lifted a first-pitch fly ball to left field. He was two outs away, and the Citi crowd was practically primal now. The roar was like a collective plea - loud, raw, incomprehensible.
Allen Craig was next, defeated by a 2-2 fastball that landed softly in Kirk Nieuwenhuis' glove. And then there was Freese, who was ready to wait out Santana as the count ran to 3-0, But the history-maker fought back to 3-2, telling himself, "get this last out" before unveiling the change-up that no mortal could've possibly solved.
There are plenty of baseball people who'll wonder about the risk the Mets took with Santana on Friday night, but no one was about to debate the trade-off.
For one night - one beautiful, historic night, the one that liberated Mets' fans from 50 years of waiting, it was all worth it. Every last pitch.