By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008
In 1998, a young right-hander from Rochester, N.Y., began his first professional baseball season just east of his home town, in Auburn, the Houston Astros' affiliate in the New York-Penn League. Name of Tim Redding. On the same starting staff was a left-hander from Venezuela, just 20 by the time he got there at the end of the year, Johan Santana. The two were teammates again the following spring at Michigan, Class A ball, hard-throwers with high hopes.
A decade has passed since that time, and the pair couldn't have had more divergent paths to climb the same mound again. Last night, there they were at Nationals Park, Santana as the accomplished ace of the New York Mets delivering an expected 7-2 victory over Redding, now the staff sage of the decidedly less flashy Washington Nationals.
"He hasn't changed," Redding said of his old teammate. "If anything, he's gotten better."
Two Cy Young awards and a $137.5 million contract would be proof of that. Santana looked the part last night in front of a crowd of 32,780, throwing seven innings of two-run ball, when the only damage was one fastball he threw to Redding, a ball Redding turned into a two-run double. Otherwise, it was the kind of performance he is supposed to deliver. Thus, the Nationals lost for the 16th time in 19 games, victims of their own sloppiness -- and Santana.
"It's easy playing behind him," Mets right fielder Ryan Church said. "He may give up one, two or three, but that's all he's going to do. You know it basically every time."
Redding was once that kind of guy, a rising star in the Astros organization just as Santana was departing. Their one full season together was 1999 for Michigan, when both were in the rotation, when both cranked it up to the mid-90s. Their numbers were remarkably similar, Redding 8-6 with 4.97 ERA, Santana 8-8 with a 4.66.
"It wasn't that he wasn't good or didn't have the talent," Redding said. "It was just one of those years where things didn't work out for him on a day-to-day basis."
Nor did they work out for Redding that year. Told by the Astros that if he got off to a good start he would be promoted, Redding began the season solidly. Yet he didn't get called up to Class AA, and he collapsed. By the second half, he asked the Astros to go to the bullpen just so he could collect himself. He saved 14 games while Santana stayed in the rotation.
From there, though, they separated. The Astros left Santana off their 40-man roster, a decided risk given that they could lose him in the Rule 5 draft. "Houston's got to be kicking themselves right now thinking they were going to sneak a 19-year-old Venezuelan kid who threw 93 through a protection year," Redding said.
They couldn't sneak Santana through. Florida selected him in the Rule 5 draft and immediately traded him to Minnesota. There he became a star, winning the Cy Youngs, leading the small-market Twins to the postseason. No offseason move caused more consternation than that of Santana from Minnesota, which courted both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees before the Mets stepped in with a four-prospect package. New York then signed him to a six-year deal that set a record for pitchers.
After that year at Michigan, Santana pitched in only 11 more minor league games. Redding, as he said, "came up here, and been bouncing around." Reconstructive elbow surgery set him back, and he spent parts of the next seven seasons after he and Santana parted ways pitching in the minors. The Nationals plucked him in 2007, and his performance a year ago -- 3-6 record and 3.64 ERA -- earned him a cool $1 million for this year, roughly $15 million less than Santana will earn. Last night was Santana's 96th major league win. It was Redding's 99th major league start.
Even with all that, Redding might have had a chance, even without his best stuff. His double in the fourth gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead. But Redding had his key exchange in the top of the fifth. With one out, he walked the Mets' eighth-place hitter, former Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, on four pitches.
That brought up Santana, who had already doubled in his first at-bat off Redding. But the result in the fifth might have been worse. With Santana squared to bunt, Redding couldn't throw strikes, eventually walking him on a 3-2 pitch.
"It shouldn't have even gotten to 3-2 to the pitcher," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "Should have just let him bunt on the first or the second one. That's an out. When they're giving you an out, especially the pitcher, you should have it."
Redding knew it.
"I absolutely forgot how to throw strikes for two batters," Redding said. "Especially the eight hole and the pitcher's spot, you should be able to close your eyes and throw strikes at this stage of the game."
Redding couldn't, and Schneider eventually scored the tying run on Luis Castillo's infield single. Redding lasted one batter in the disastrous sixth -- an inning in which third baseman Ryan Zimmerman threw one ball away and reliever Ray King flubbed another dribbler -- and the outcome was determined. Santana didn't allow another hit after Redding's double, and the Nationals' third-through-sixth hitters combined to go 0 for 15.
"We're playing bad baseball," King said.
The Mets' bullpen offered the Nationals nothing else. Thus, the box score shows Santana with the win, Redding with the loss -- and nothing of their shared history, nor the paths that led them to the same mound on the same night.