By Steve Keating
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter ever for the New York Mets as he blanked the visiting World Series champion St Louis Cardinals 8-0 at Citi Field on Friday with the help of a big break and a big assist from outfielder Mike Baxter.
The Venezuelan struck out World Series MVP David Freese on a change-up in the dirt to end the game with his eighth strikeout and unleash a huge celebration in the middle of the diamond.
For the Mets and their fans the no-hitter was well-earned and long overdue coming against the National League's top-hitting team in the franchise's 8,020th game a half-century after the they joined the league in 1962.
"It was a crazy night ... I don't even think I've thrown a no-hitter in video games," a beaming Santana told reporters. "I knew that the Mets have never had a no-hitter, this is very special.
"All the things that we have gone through, that I have been through ... I know how much this means to New York and New York Mets."
Santana received a standing ovation from the chilled crowd of 27,069 when he came on in the ninth, three outs from the milestone.
The tension mounted when the two-time Cy Young winner retired Matt Holliday on a soft liner to center then got Allen Craig on a fly to left.
When he fanned Freese to complete the no-hitter, the Mets stampeded from the dugout and bullpen to mob their team mate in frenzied celebration.
The lefthander, who missed last season after having shoulder surgery, walked five batters and threw 134 pitches in improving his record to 3-2.
"Tonight was a night where I wasn't even thinking about it, it just happened," said Santana. "I never had in my mind I would throw a no-hitter, never because I knew I was facing a great team, the world champions.
"I had no clue, no sense I would throw a no-hitter. We, as a team, made history tonight."
Mets outfielder Mike Baxter helped preserve the no-hitter with a spectacular catch on the run in left-field in the seventh inning on a drive hit by Yadier Molina.
Baxter crashed into the fence after corralling the drive but held on for the out. The outfielder was left lying on the warning track with a shoulder injury as team mates and medical staff raced to his aid.
"Everybody knows when you have a game like tonight somebody has to come up big, there has to be a great play made and Mike made it," said Mets manager Terry Collins.
"I'm not sure how bad he is hurt but great catch, a tremendous play."
Santana also appeared to catch a big break in the sixth inning on an apparent botched call by third base umpire Adrian Johnson, who ruled a curling line drive over third base by former-Mets slugger Carlos Beltran foul when replays indicated it was fair.
"It was tough, it happened so quick I wasn't able to see anything," said Santana. "There are times when one play, one call makes the whole difference and if that was the case I got that call.
"I can't say anything about it, I just went with it and the umpire made his call and that was the end of it."
Going into Spring Training there were questions if the 33-year-old Santana would even earn a spot in the Mets starting rotation after missing the entire 2011 season recovering from shoulder surgery.
He answered many of those questions on Friday by accomplishing what many other Mets pitching greats were unable to achieve.
"When I came to this team in 2008 I came here to help win a championship," said Santana. "We have been through a lot of things but I have never given up.
"There were a lot of questions, 'can he be the same pitcher he use to be?'. I didn't know and I still don't know.
"But the one thing I can tell you, every time I go out there I will compete. I'll try to give my team a chance to win and that's the approach that I've had my whole career."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)