The 8,020th time was the charm.

In their 51st season, the Mets finally have a no-hitter. Johan Santana tamed the NL’s top offense — pregame graphics showed the Cardinals leading the NL in BA, OBP, SLG, HRs and scoring — with a Herculean effort of 134 pitches, 9 more than he’d ever thrown in a big-league game, and 26 more than his longest outing this year, his first season since 2010 surgery on his torn anterior capsule.

With the pitch count — 120 through the 8th — looming in the mind of every Mets fan, announcer, coach and front-office man, the first out of the 9th took just 1 pitch, a soft liner to CF by Matt Holliday (who went 2-4 with a HR and double the last time they met). Allen Craig, coming off the DL with a .373 BA just in time to face Johan for the first time, blooped out to left on a 2-2 count. David Freese took 3 balls, then a strike at the knees. He fouled off another. And then Freese swung over a signature Johan change-up. Josh Thole, also fresh off the DL, held on. And then bedlam.

There was one sour note in the game: A ball that Carlos Beltran pulled down the 3B line in the 6th was ruled foul, but replays appeared to show the ball hitting chalk past the bag.

The other close call for Santana was a drive to deep left in the 7th that Mike Baxter snagged running full-speed into the padded wall. He crash-landed, face down, kicking his right leg in apparent agony, but the ball was in his glove. Baxter was down for a while before walking off on his own steam; he may have injured his left shoulder. Here’s hoping there’s no concussion.

The no-hitter wasn’t Johan’s only historic achievement tonight. He also became the first Met with consecutive shutouts since 1992, when David Cone did it twice in the first 2 months. (Cone had an NL-best 5 shutouts when he was traded in August.) The catch for this pursuit was that Johan used 120 pitches through 8 innings, well over his prescribed limit — so the no-no was the only path to finish the shutout.

He finished with 8 strikeouts and 5 walks, 2 more than any other start this year — but not from protecting the no-hitter. Four of the walks came before the first out of the 5th inning.

June 1, 2012 is a day that will live forever in Mets history, and the moment couldn’t have been authored by a more admirable Met. Thank you, Johan!

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[The following is something I wrote after Santana's previous start, a 96-pitch shutout, but I held it back for reasons I can't recall. There's no holding back now.]

A Brief Appreciation of Johan

There are a hundred and one things to admire about Johan Santana. Here’s just one:

He fields his position brilliantly.

Two reasons: One, he has an athlete’s instincts in an athlete’s body. Two, he finishes his delivery in textbook attitude.

Here’s what I love about that second reason: It’s a choice that shows team spirit. Now, there are many pitchers who fall off the mound after delivering, and by no means do I think they all could mend their ways without a loss of effectiveness. But I do think there are some who’ve never taken the matter seriously, who feel their talent is so special that they needn’t bother pursuing such small advantages as are to be got from a pitcher’s fielding.

But it’s not just about those few extra outs snagged by the pitcher. It’s also about the infielder who just knows he’s so quick and cannon-armed, he doesn’t need to pick up the catcher’s sign. It’s about the outfielder who shies from the wall too often [I thought about this as I watched Baxter slam into the wall tonight], or always goes for the glory of the baserunner kill instead of hitting the cutoff. And it’s about the catcher who glove-swipes at a bouncing curve with men on base instead of moving his feet and taking his lumps.

In other words, it’s about the self-multiplying value of showing respect and commitment to your team and teammates, through an attitude of professional humility that says, I am not so great that I can give away advantages and still hold my head up in the clubhouse.

And you can just tell — Johan means to hold his head up in the clubhouse. Always.

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