PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Thirteen still photographers lined up behind home plate as Johan Santana‘s familiar anthem “Smooth”, by the artist Carlos Santana, blared over the speakers at Digital Domain Park. Then, after taking the requisite warm-up pitches, the New York Mets‘ ace faced major league competition for the first time since Sept. 2, 2010 in Atlanta.
In the final stages of working back from surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder that caused him to miss last season, Santana pitched two scoreless innings Tuesday afternoon in a Grapefruit League game against the St. Louis Cardinals. His fastball mostly sat at 87-88 mph, boding well that it will consistently hover around 90 mph by the time the regular season arrives.
“Finally I had an opportunity to go out there and finally get the first one out of the way,” Santana said. “… I was excited about today. Even as I was preparing myself prior to the game, I was anxious to go out there and do it. But, at the same time, it was all about how I feel. I know it is a game situation and you have to do your job out there, but I was just focused on making sure I do the mechanics the right way and feeling good and not feeling anything in my arm. And that’s how I felt today. I felt good.”
In a 29-pitch effort that included 17 strikes, Santana allowed a five-pitch walk to the first batter he faced, Shane Robinson. The Cardinals’ leadoff hitter then was erased when Santana deftly fielded a comebacker and initiated a 1-6-3 double play. The only other batter to reach against Santana came when Mark Hamilton jumped on a 1-2 changeup with two out in the second inning for a single to center.
Santana hit 90 mph once on the radar gun, but that pitch was way up in the zone to Matt Holliday. Twelve of his 13 pitches in the first inning were fastballs; he modestly incorporated other pitches into his repertoire in his second inning and threw one vintage changeup to Yadier Molina for a swinging strike.
Molina insisted the changeup he received from Santana was so good, the Cardinal could not even pick it up.
“He threw me one, I just didn’t see it,” Molina said. “He had me fooled.”
One scout in attendance said of Santana’s performance: “Very good. He looked a bit amped up in the first inning, understandably so. He threw some excellent changeups in the second. I’d be very encouraged. Velocity was 87-90 mph.”
Given the depth of the other rotations in the National League East, the Mets desperately need a major contribution from Santana this season to anchor a rotation that also includes R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee.
And Tuesday was the beginning of the true test as to whether Santana can remain healthy enough to anchor the Mets’ rotation. Santana said he hopes to get back into a regular rotation routine now.
“That’s what we’re looking for. That will be the key — the next couple of days, trying to throw my bullpen and see if I’ll be ready for my next start,” Santana said. “But, again, the way I feel right now, and the way I ended up the game today, it was good. So it’s a good sign. Hopefully we’ll be back on the mound in five games. … I don’t see any problems in my next one. But, again, we have to wait until tomorrow, the next couple of days, and see how I feel and go from there. The most important thing today is that I felt good.”
Santana twice started in minor league games last summer, then had to shut down his game activity to let his surgically repaired shoulder calm down before resuming limited game action in the fall instructional league in Fort Myers, Fla.
Manager Terry Collins said he will know a lot more about Santana’s status in two days, when the southpaw tries to return to the mound for a between-starts bullpen session. Collins will learn even more in five days, when Santana tries to show he can begin competing on a regular rotation turn. Santana next is due to face the Miami Marlins in Port St. Lucie on Sunday.
“Obviously two days after (Tuesday) is when I want to really see how he’s doing, because that will be a test on how he’s going to bounce back,” Collins said.
Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com.
Follow Adam Rubin on Twitter: @AdamRubinESPN
Mets’ Santana faces major league competition
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