NEW YORK -- Even before history was made at Citi Field on Friday, Terry Collins knew that Johan Santana was his hero.
The Mets manager approached the left-hander in the dugout during the seventh inning against the Cardinals and told him as much. By the end of an 8-0 win and the first no-hitter in Mets history, 27,069 at Citi Field likely felt the same.
"I don't think I even threw a no-hitter in video games," Santana said. "This was the first time I had an opportunity, and coming into this game, I had no clue. I had no sense that I might throw a no-hitter. You never know when they're going to happen.
"This is very, very special, and I know it means a lot to New York."
It took 51 seasons for the Mets and one year of rehab for Santana, but it happened. Rangers CEO and president Nolan Ryan, one of a handful of former Mets pitchers that have thrown no-hitters in other uniforms, weighed in on the magnitude of Santana's outing for the Mets.
"They've had a lot of history of one-hitters, and it's because of the great pitchers they've had there," Ryan said. "When you think of Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden there, and some of the other guys, it's amazing they never did."
"Short of Tom Seaver, I couldn't think of a better guy to have this recognition," Mets third baseman David Wright said.
Collins said before the game he would limit Santana to about 110 pitches, but he could not pull his starter when the time came to choose between a chance at history and a dangerously high pitch count. The skipper remained torn by his decision afterward, as his eyes watered up in his postgame news conference while he discussed Santana and his return from September 2010 shoulder surgery.
"I think that's what the whole thing's about," Collins said. "To do what he had to do, to have this surgery done and have people say, 'He's not coming back, his career's over. If he comes back, he'll be a subpar guy, just another guy who had surgery who is being paid a lot of money, so he'll continue to pitch.' What's got him to this level is what he showed you tonight. He trusts himself. He trusts his ability. He never gives up, never gives in. He said, 'I'm going to come back from this,' and it led to this."
It led to his second consecutive shutout, and while this one will be immortalized, Saturday's 96-pitch outing against the Padres may have been even more dominant.
Santana walked five Cardinals as his pitch count climbed, and with two outs in the ninth, he fell behind David Freese 3-0.
But Santana never hesitated, and neither did catcher Josh Thole.
Thole knew Santana already established the inside of the plate despite three balls, and they went back inside with a fastball for the first called strike. Santana went to his signature changeup for pitch No. 133 before getting Freese to swing and miss at pitch No. 134 for out No. 27.
"That whole last at-bat came right to me," Thole said. "There was no question about it. He throws a changeup and I want it down in the dirt. If he walks him, so be it, but hopefully we can get a swing through. He threw it perfect."
It was Santana's eighth strikeout of the game as he finished with a 1-2-3 ninth after receiving help to keep his no-hit bid alive in earlier innings.
"I thought his stuff in the ninth inning was better than it was in the seventh," Collins said. "His fastball had some zip. His slider had some bite to it. You could tell, that's strictly adrenaline."
Left fielder Mike Baxter let Citi Field breathe a collective sigh of relief in the top of the seventh, when he chased down a Yadier Molina fly ball and caught it for the game's 20th out as he crashed into the wall and fell. It forced him from the game with a left shoulder contusion, but it saved Santana's no-hit bid.
"What a night for the Mets," said Baxter, a native of Queens and childhood Mets fan.
Baxter's catch came an inning after third-base umpire Adrian Johnson's foul-ball call on a Carlos Beltran hit down the line kept it alive for the first time.
The former Met ripped a sixth-inning fastball down the third-base line, and replays showed it hit the chalk after it crossed the bag. But Johnson called it foul, and Beltran grounded out to Wright on the next pitch.
"Everything came out perfect for him," said Beltran after the game. "I'm not happy about it, but at the same time, he's a good man. I'm happy for him."
Santana then shouldered the rest of his quest for Mets history, even after spending increasingly long innings on the bench while his offense piled on runs.
The Mets put up three runs in both the sixth and seventh innings after spotting Santana a 2-0 lead in the fourth. That inning began with the game's first hit against Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who was already aware of zeros on the board.
"I knew after three that neither one of us had given up a hit," Wainwright said. "After four, after five, you keep thinking, 'All right, this is going to be the one. We're going to get him now.' He just kept making pitches."
He did it on a shoulder that Collins wants to protect, and one that Santana is still unsure of. But for one night, it was enough to shoulder the burden of 51 seasons of Mets history and forever include his name as part of it.
"If we go back to Spring Training ... there were a lot of question marks," Santana said. "'Could he be the same pitcher he used to be?' I don't know. And I still don't know. But one thing I can tell you is that every time I go out there, I'll compete. ... That's what I do."
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.