PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Johan Santana shouldered the load for the St. Lucie Mets on Thursday night at Digital Domain Park -- at least in the early part of the Florida State League game.
Santana, fully healed from shoulder surgery last September, was strong in his first rehab start, firing three scoreless innings at the Daytona Cubs in high Class A St. Lucie's 3-1 win in front of 3,857 fans.
Seated at a locker occupied by catcher Josh Thole during spring training, Santana fielded questions for more than 10 minutes, repeatedly driving home a constant theme: He was both pleased with his outing and cautious for what the future holds.
"I felt good," Santana said. "It's my first time actually in a real game where I had to get a hitter out. I felt all my pitches were there and that I was able to throw them without any problem. I was excited to go and have the opportunity to get the first one out of the way. It's been a long process, but a good one."
Santana, 32, has been sidelined all season after undergoing shoulder surgery last Sept. 14 to repair the anterior capsule of his left shoulder.
"Build up my arm strength and the pitch counts," Santana said of his immediate goals. "I hope at some point I'll join (the Mets), but my focus right now is that every outing is a good one and I'll be able to recover one start from another. I'm definitely on my way."
Daytona produced just two hits -- one a sharp single to right by Justin Bour, the other a double by Rafael Valdes that chopped over third baseman Jefry Marte, who was playing in. Santana also hit Logan Watkins in the shoulder with a 90 mph fastball.
Showing unusually good command for a pitcher coming off surgery and facing his first hitters, Santana fanned leadoff hitter David Macias with a fastball that registered 89 mph. He ended the opening frame by striking out Greg Rohan, who was hitting .432 in his 10 games with Daytona after being promoted from low Class A Peoria. Santana posted his final out by whiffing Watkins on a changeup that ended up in the dirt.
"The last time I faced some hitters was (Friday) in a (42-pitch) simulated game, and I was able to throw all my pitches," the two-time Cy Young Award winner and four-time All-Star said. "Ever since I was throwing off the mound, I've been working on my mechanics, and my mechanics have been there. My pitches are right there."
Said St. Lucie catcher Francisco Pena, the son of Tony Pena, "I think he had some adrenaline early with all the fans. But he did a really good job. He had good command of his changeup and fastball. He really pumped it up there a couple of times. He had a little bit extra on some of those fastballs."
Santana's mound work was also economical. He tossed 33 pitches, 26 of them for strikes, and never had a three-ball count on a Cubs batter. The Mets' game plan for Santana was either three innings or 45 pitches, and the Venezuelan said having him come out for the fourth inning was never considered, despite the ease of work.
"I knew after I had 18 (pitches in the first) ... that I had to work things out because I didn't want to get pulled out in the middle of an inning," Santana said with a laugh. "But the plan worked out pretty good."
The next step is to evaluate Santana on Friday morning. If everything is well, he will throw a bullpen over the weekend. Rehabilitation pitching coordinator Randy Niemann said the club wants to give Santana an extra day of rest -- six days -- meaning his next start could come Wednesday when St. Lucie travels to face the Jupiter Hammerheads at Roger Dean Stadium.
"Early, he was trying to oversell his changeup, which he never has to do," Niemann said. "Then he corrected that. If you're around him every day like I am, it's a lot of fun to watch his work ethic. All he's thought about is getting his mechanics right and throwing strikes. He's the kind of guy who doesn't care how hard he's throwing because he knows he can get guys out with his command of the baseball."
Niemann also said Santana could get major league batters out now, but there is a waiting period because of the time he has spent trying to build up his arm strength.
"There is a big gap," said Niemann. "I believe you take that guy out to a major league mound right now and he'd give you everything he's got. Physically, his shoulder's just not ready right now. We hope over the next month, we can build up the strength and recovery. It's paying off, but we have a ways to go.
"He understands (that). For me, it would be like him coming out of his first outing of spring training and saying he was ready to pitch in the season. He knows he's not. He's happy with the results and that he feels good, but he knows there's a lot of pitching to go before he's ready."
Bill Whitehead covers the St. Lucie Mets in the Florida State League for Scripps newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL