santana_20090927.jpgHere’s a modern definition of the sublime: watching a star athlete come through in the clutch and raise the level of his or her game beyond expectations.

Michael Phelps at the Olympics this summer was an example of the athletic sublime, particularly when he won the 100 meter butterfly at the final touch by .01 seconds.

And today it was the Mets’ ace pitcher Johan Santana turning in a performance that Met fans will long remember. With his team facing elimination from the playoffs, Santana told his manager, Jerry Manual, that he would pitch on three days’ rest — one day shorter than his normal period of recuperation — something he had done only once before in his career. That was during the 2004 AL Playoffs between the Twins and the Yankees: Santana came back three days after winning the first game of the series and threw 87 pitches over five innings, allowing only one run, and leaving with a 5-1 lead — a lead that his bullpen would relinquish en route to a 6-5 Yankee victory in 11 inings. (A little foretaste of 2008 for Santana.)

What was remarkable about today’s performance, however, is that it came three days after Santana had thrown a career-high 125 pitches in a win over the Chicago Cubs. And it was no 5-inning, 87-pitch performance. Santana pitched a complete game shutout, throwing 117 pitches.

Santana’s change-up seemed to improve as the game went on. The astounded Mets television announcer Gary Cohen noted that no Met had pitched a complete game on three days rest since David Cone did it in 1990, and no Met had pitched a shutout on three days rest since Dwight Gooden did it in 1987 — twenty-one years ago. And in neither of those cases was the season on the line. Former Mets pitcher Ron Darling gushed: “And the best change-up he’s had all season long. Imagine: on his 34th start, in a game the Mets have to win, he’s got his best stuff.”

With one out in the ninth, Santana made a mistake, leaving a fastball in the middle of the plate to Josh Willingham , who ripped a double to left center. Scott Schoenweis and Luis Ayala were warming up in the bullpen. But there was no way Santana was giving either of them the ball. He bore down.He struck out Dan Uggla and got Cody Ross to fly out to deep left field. It reminded me of Phelps at that photo finish: not just the talent, but the will to win..

With the Brewers losing later on to the Cubs, the Mets were once again tied for the wild card in the National League. So what if the Phillies won and sewed up a second straight division championship? Tomorrow’s game — the last regular season game at Shea Stadium will mean something (unlike the Yankee’s finale at their stadium). And if the Mets win, there will be at least one more game played at Shea.

Oliver Perez will be called on to emulate Santana and pitch on three days’ rest.

I’m hoping for a second straight day of the athletic sublime.