Catching for Santana, Schneider Now Has a Charge in His Battery

Mets ace Johan Santana, above, has such an array of pitches that his catcher, former National Brian Schneider, said of calling a game,
Mets ace Johan Santana, above, has such an array of pitches that his catcher, former National Brian Schneider, said of calling a game, "sometimes it's like, 'Flip a coin.' " (By Doug Benc -- Getty Images)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

CHICAGO, April 22 -- What to put down here? He could put down the fastball sign, Brian Schneider figures, and his pitcher will pump it right into the mitt -- this is Johan Santana we're talking about -- right in the sweet spot where the webbing hits the padding, 93 mph strong, in a spot no batter can get to with any authority. Or maybe the slider. Yeah, the slider. With a right-handed batter up, Santana, a lefty, could start it out over the plate, but before the batter realizes it's not the fastball he thinks it is, his bat is whiffing through the zone and the slider is about to hit him on the top of his back foot.

This is the conversation, almost a game, that goes on in Schneider's head anytime he catches Santana, the New York Mets' $137.5 million ace and the consensus best pitcher on the planet -- as he is expected to do Wednesday night at Nationals Park, in the Mets' first visit to Washington this season and Schneider's first time back since the Nationals traded him last November.

But back to Schneider's internal conversation. Of course, there's always the change-up, perhaps the single most diabolical pitch in any pitcher's repertoire in baseball. Schneider could call for one of those -- but the other stuff is so good, might as well save the change-up for later.

"What's really cool," Schneider says, delighting in the description, "is how he throws inside to right-handed batters. He'll drop that slider on the guy's back foot, then come back with the best change-up in baseball, down and away. You can see the [batter] go, 'Oh, wait a minute, he has that change-up, too.' "

And what's amazing, Schneider says, is how seldom Santana shakes him off -- no more than a handful of times in any of Santana's first four starts this season, including a seven-inning gem against the Philadelphia Phillies last Friday night. In that game, Schneider called for first-pitch fastballs to the first 13 batters Santana faced, and eight wound up striking out.

Asked about his willingness to throw whatever Schneider calls, Santana shrugs and says: "The guy is good. And he knows, no matter what he calls, I'm going to throw it with a purpose -- to get somebody out."

But Schneider knows the real truth, and he is perfectly willing to admit it: In many cases, it hardly matters what he calls, or what Santana throws. Whatever it is -- the sword, the knife or the gun -- it's going to be deadly.

"I'm not going to say it's easy calling his game," says Schneider, who has missed three straight games with a bruised forearm but expects to play Wednesday night, "but sometimes it's like, 'Flip a coin.' "

Wednesday night's start in Washington will complete Santana's initial journey through the National League East Division, the landscape the Mets expected him to conquer when, in February, they sent four prospects to the Minnesota Twins to acquire him, then -- to get him to waive his no-trade rights -- handed him the biggest contract for a pitcher in baseball history.

Santana, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, beat Florida in Miami on Opening Day, lost at Atlanta despite giving up only one run in seven innings, then -- after making his Shea Stadium debut against the Milwaukee Brewers, another loss in which his exit from the mound drew a smattering of boos from the home crowd -- dominated the Phillies with a 10-strikeout, no-walk effort, briefly putting the Mets in first place in the division.

Santana's record only is 2-2, his ERA a rather pedestrian 3.25 -- and in fact, the mediocre numbers date from last year's all-star break, since which point he is 7-9 with a 3.87 ERA. But Santana says he isn't concerned about the numbers ("All that matters is that I'm healthy," he says), and the Mets say by merely showing up he already has made a difference in pushing the franchise beyond last September's horrendous collapse, in which it blew a seven-game lead over the Phillies with 17 games to play.

"It's rare when you can say one player brings a team to another level, but I think Johan does that," says Mets third baseman David Wright, who has acknowledged the team lacked a certain mental toughness down the stretch in 2007. "He's very similar to when I saw a healthy Pedro [Martínez]. There's a certain intensity or focus they have that I've never seen in anyone else."

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