By Jerry Beach
The Sports Xchange
NEW YORK—With a redeye flight to New York awaiting him, Terry Francona slept through Johan Santana's no-hitter for the New York Mets Friday night. But nobody in America had a better idea of what Mets manager Terry Collins went through as Santana's pursuit of history took him past his prescribed pitch count.
Pitch counts were the topic of the day Saturday afternoon, a little more than 12 hours after Santana threw the first no-hitter in the 50-year history of the Mets in an 8-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. Collins, who was near tears Friday as he discussed how difficult it was for him to resist the urge to pull Santana in the middle of the no-hitter, was less emotional Saturday but no less conflicted.
"I went against just about everything I stand for, and that's taking the chance, first of all, of hurting your whole ballclub through the next four months for an instant decision of glory of one inning," Collins said "Is it worth it? Is it worth it? I believe in the organization, I believe in the team and I'm not here to destroy any of that. So I'm sitting there last night when I came in here saying in my heart I was very, very excited for Johan, very excited for everybody, but I kind of felt I had made the wrong move."
Francona, the former Boston Red Sox manager and current ESPN broadcaster who was at Citi Field to prepare for Sunday night's Mets-Cardinals telecast, sat in the back of the room for Collins' pre-game press conference Saturday and flashed plenty of knowing smiles and nods as Collins discussed his internal battle.
Four years and nine months prior to Santana's gem, it was Francona who was trying to keep the long-term health of a pitcher in mind, while still allowing him the chance to complete what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Clay Buchholz threw a no-hitter in his second major league start for the Red Sox on Sept. 1, 2007, when he needed 115 pitches to stymie the Baltimore Orioles. Buchholz was just 23 at the time and had never thrown 100 pitches or gone beyond the seventh inning as a professional.
Afterward, then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said Buchholz would have been pulled at 120 pitches, which led to a series of memorable reactions by Francona and Red Sox players.
"We feel that we have a huge responsibility to this young kid," Francona said that night. "But somebody else might have had to put a uniform on and come take him out, because that would have been very difficult."
"He's taking him out?" then-Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said. "My [rear end]. Not with two outs."
On Saturday afternoon, Francona could tell the truth.
"No, we weren’t going to take him out," Francona said. "You've got to let him pitch. But still, you worry, because you have a responsibility to the organization.
"It's historic, so you have to let him go. But you worry."
Santana is a full decade older than Buchholz was when he threw his no-hitter for the Red Sox, but Santana is also 21 months removed from left shoulder surgery that cost him the entire 2011 season and began this season with another two years and $49.5 million remaining on his contract. Santana beat the Mets' expectations by making it back to pitch Opening Day and exceeded 100 pitches just three times in his first nine starts. Collins said Saturday his ace left-hander will have his next start pushed back at least a couple days.
Collins didn't have anyone in his ear telling him to pull Santana at a certain pitch count Friday, which was fortunate for all involved.
"The fight that would have taken place on the mound had I taken him out would have been a bigger story than the no-hitter," Collins said.
But Collins was ready to pull the plug on a no-hitter 30 years ago, when, as the manager of the Dodgers' Class-A affiliate in Vero Beach, Collins was ready to pull Sid Fernandez -- a future Met -- in the ninth inning of a no-hitter if he reached 130 pitches. Fernandez, who had a sore shoulder after throwing 150 pitches in a no-hitter earlier in the year, completed the no-hitter a few pitches shy of 130.
"That was the first time I ever heard pitch count, the phrase," Collins said. "Mr. [Al] Campanis was the general manager. He said 'Hey, look, we're going to make sure this guy never throws over 130 pitches again.' So I told my pitching coach back then I was going to take him out. He said 'Are you crazy?'
"I said 'My job's not worth one pitch.' Fortunately, Sid went out and did what he did. Last night, I was kind of saying the same thing to myself: This guy comes up hurt, is your job worth this great moment?"
Collins admitted part of him hoped Santana would give up a hit and make the decision for him, but he also admired the left-hander for declaring after the seventh inning (and before he batted in the eighth inning) he would finish the game. That determination on the part of Santana -- which led Collins to call him his hero after the game -- ensured the decision to go for the no-hitter was a mutual one.
"I wasn't thinking about risking anything, the next start or anything," Santana said Saturday. "It was more about it's there, I have an opportunity to make this happen and I'm not going to let it get away because I don’t know if I'll ever have a chance to do it again."
"Last night was just too big a moment to not have him close it," Collins said.
No matter what kind of agony it put his manager through.
"I thought it was very impressive, he spoke from the heart," Francona said of Collins. "He understands his obligations to the organization, but at the same time what's unfolding is historic. So you just sit back and chew on the inside of your stomach and hope it works out not only in the present but in the future. I thought he stated it very well."
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