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After plunk, plenty of pluck

Exchange with Youkilis lit a fire under Santana

Johan Santana allowed just one hit after hitting Kevin Youkilis with a pitch. Johan Santana allowed just one hit after hitting Kevin Youkilis with a pitch. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / May 23, 2009
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Johan Santana, under typical circumstances and in his normal state of mind, is the undisputed best lefthanded pitcher on the planet, possessor of the craft's most wicked changeup and all other manner of lethal pitches. The last thing he needs on a pitching rubber is extra incentive.

Kevin Youkilis, intentionally or not, gave that to him last night in the fifth inning of the Mets' 5-3 victory at Fenway Park, where Santana had not pitched since September 2006, when he still played for the Twins. The Red Sox scored three runs against him, which is commendable given the 1.36 ERA with which he entered and the 1.50 ERA with which he exited.

But Santana oppressed the Sox when it mattered most, owing partly, he said, to his showdown with Youkilis - which only Santana took as a showdown. Santana allowed two earned runs on seven hits and a walk. After he hit Youkilis with a pitch and briefly exchanged words with him, he allowed one hit and no runs while recording three of his eight strikeouts, earning his first win at Fenway since May 2, 2003.

"It fired me up," Santana said. "I didn't appreciate it after I hit him. He started looking at me like I was intentionally trying to hit him. I don't play that kind of game. But if I have to, then I'm always there to stand up for my team."

When Youkilis came to bat in the fifth, Santana had proved mortal. The Sox trailed, 4-3. The bases were empty with two outs, and Santana worked to a two-strike count. "In that situation right there, two outs, two strikes, there's no way I'm going to hit anybody intentionally," Santana said.

Youkilis had crowded the plate, and Santana, standing on the extreme right of the rubber, pumped inside fastballs. This one veered at Youkilis's hands.

"I don't think it was a strike, but it was pretty close," Santana said. "He was on top of the plate."

The ball skimmed off Youkilis's hand. He shook it and glanced toward the mound.

"After I hit him, he just stood there and started looking at me," Santana said. "I don't appreciate it. I play the game the right way. I don't want to hit him."

Santana and Youkilis exchanged words as he walked to first. "What did I say?" Youkilis said afterward. "I said, '[Expletive], that hurt.' I was just joking around. I guess that was like, 'Why are you throwing at me?'

"He just told me to go to first base. Like I said, I'm going to play the way I'm playing now, just joking around and having a good time. Yeah, I get [upset] every once in a while, but I guess he was really [ticked] off at that. Can't do much about it. You're going to have to ask him."

Sox manager Terry Francona bolted onto the field, and players on both teams rushed to the top steps of their dugouts. Tension quickly dissipated.

Youkilis was smiling by the time he got to first. After the game, Santana was still miffed.

"If you're looking at me like that, you're going to get it back," Santana said. "I'm a gamer, and that's what I'm going to do. I told him just to take his base. That was about it. But he's still looking at me and talking. And it fires me up. I've got respect for everybody, and I respect his game, but at the same time I'm going to play hard. After that, I just tried to be aggressive and finish it up."

And he did. In the next inning, the Red Sox put men on second and third with one out thanks to an error by shortstop Ramon Martinez. Santana induced a popup to second from Julio Lugo and a grounder to shortstop by Jacoby Ellsbury.

"In those situations right there, you've just got to keep the game going and step it up," Santana said. "The whole atmosphere that was going and the game situation makes you feel that way. It's a great atmosphere. It's a great ballpark. It's fun. You always see the fans getting into it."

Those could have been his fans. Before the Mets traded for Santana after the 2006 season, the Red Sox and Twins discussed a possible deal. Minnesota wanted Jon Lester and Ellsbury, too steep of a price, and Santana landed in New York.

"I know when everything started, this was one of the teams that was on top," Santana said. "But we never heard anything from everybody. I guess they didn't have a chance to get anything done with the Twins. The only team that stepped it up and went forward was the Mets. I'm very happy to be here and represent New York.

"But at the same time, we were open to anything. I live in Fort Myers. It would have been the convenient thing to do. But they never stepped forward."

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com

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