Commentary

Santana's return to mound a success

The pitcher's Opening Day start gave the Mets a win in more ways than one

Updated: April 5, 2012, 11:25 PM ET
By Adam Rubin | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- New York Mets left-hander Johan Santana walked No. 8 hitter Tyler Pastornicky, in only the Atlanta Braves shortstop's second major league plate appearance. The southpaw then walked opposing pitcher Tommy Hanson, too, to load the bases.

With the Mets in a scoreless battle in the fifth inning Thursday afternoon at Citi Field and with Santana's pitch count approaching its cap, the complexion of his first major league appearance in 582 days hinged on the outcome of a matchup against Michael Bourn.

Comebacker, on pitch No. 84.

Santana then completed a throw to first baseman Ike Davis -- albeit high, creating an anxious moment -- to retire Bourn and polish off his first appearance since a Sept. 14, 2010, surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder.

[+] EnlargeJohan Santana
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireJohan Santana pitched five strong innings in his first action since September 2010.

The Mets took a 1-0 lead in the sixth. That stood up the rest of the way as Ramon Ramirez, Tim Byrdak, Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco combined for four scoreless innings in relief of Santana in the Mets' Opening Day victory.

"I kind of ran to first base, and I was like, 'Should I run all the way?'" Santana said about Bourn's comebacker. "And then I threw the ball to Ike. And it was a great feeling.

"Definitely we worked very hard. And to be in that position and to get out of that inning, it was very important for me."

Said second baseman Daniel Murphy: "You could tell how amped he was, because he almost uncorked it over Ike's head. But, man, it was nice to see him out there."

By almost any measure, Santana's return to the majors after a season away was a success.

For one thing, Santana's ability to take the mound was a victory. After experiencing achiness in a Grapefruit League start 10 days ago, during which his fastball velocity sat at only 86 mph in the first inning, Santana worked on just a bullpen mound the rest of camp.

Now, at least six of his first seven starts in the regular season will come on an extra day of rest because of team off days. His next outing should come Thursday, likely opposite Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg, in the finale to the Mets' season-opening homestand -- unless the Nats skip their fifth starter, which is not expected.

Santana, despite hovering in the 86 to 89 mph range with his fastball Thursday, continued to display an effective changeup. Braves second baseman Dan Uggla struck out twice flailing at the pitch. Santana retired 12 straight Braves at one point and allowed only two hits in five scoreless innings.

"When I have my fastball, even though I know it's not like it used to be, I still can throw my changeups and my sliders, and get swings and misses," Santana said. "To me, pitching is about keeping hitters off balance. That's what I'm trying to do. To do that, I have to mix my fastballs with my changeups. And that's what I was doing. Whether it's 85 mph, whatever it was today, 90, 88, it had that effect because my changeup was there and my slider. So, to me, it's all about changing speeds and moving the ball around, and that's what I did today."

Santana has been cautious about his return, not portraying himself as out of the woods from the shoulder surgery just yet, even if team doctor David Altchek, who performed the procedure, believes the risky phases are behind him.

"I'm still working, trying to be what used to be. I think the way we have approached everything, we're trying to be very careful, but, at the same time, not trying to think about it -- just trying to go out there and do what I used to do and build up from there," Santana said.

Reflecting on the achiness he felt in his final spring training start, an 88-pitch outing after which he received an injection of the anti-inflammatory medication Toradol, Santana said: "Back then, that was the first time I went over 80 pitches. It was a new thing for me in my rehab process. I was building up.

"But, today, I didn't think about any of that stuff. I was thinking more about competing and trying to get people out. And now I'm getting to that recovery time for my next outing. And we'll see how it goes. But as far as everything today, I felt good. I was able to throw all of my pitches. I was able to compete. I mean, I had some bad pitches that I threw, where my slider I didn't command it well. But I was able to come back and get those guys out. It definitely felt good."

Said manager Terry Collins: "I've only been around this guy for a year, but the stories I've heard of the past, he's lived up to every one of them. He is by far one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around. And that's why I said, if anybody can come back from his injury, he could.

"I wanted him to go another couple of innings if I could have, but he gave us all he got."

Adam Rubin has covered the Mets since 2003. He's a graduate of Mepham High School on Long Island and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined ESPNNewYork after spending 10 years at the New York Daily News.
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