Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 4/5/12
NEW YORK The New York Mets weren't looking for greatness from Johan Santana in his first Major League start in more than 18 months. Just having their southpaw ace back on the mound after a full season without him was enough. But as the two-time Cy Young award winner often tends to do, Santana exceeded expectations Thursday, throwing five shutout innings in a 1-0 Opening Day win over the division rival Atlanta Braves. "(It means) a lot," Santana said of his long road back and return to the field. "We worked hard. We never stopped. We went through tough times, good days (and) bad days. But we learned a lot, and all I wanted was to come back and to help, somehow. I'm very happy that everything paid off." Santana wasn't quite unhittable in his first big league start since 2010, but he was close. The four-time All-Star struck out five Braves batters while allowing just two hits, two walks and most importantly no runs. "(If) we pitch, we can compete, and today we sent our guy out there and he pitched," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "He pitched as good as you could ask." A pre-determined pitch count prevented Santana from snagging his fifth career Opening Day victory the win went to Ramon Ramirez, who threw 1 13 innings of two-hit, shutout ball after taking over for Santana in the sixth but his showing helped lower his Opening Day ERA to just 1.52 in four such starts since being traded from Minnesota to New York in February 2008. "Johan never ceases to amaze," said third baseman David Wright, who knocked in the only run of the game with an RBI single in the sixth. "He was outstanding. When you've got Johan on the mound, you know if you can scratch a few across, then you've got a good chance." Santana's comeback was a long time coming for Collins, Wright and the Mets, who slogged through all of last season without a bona fide No. 1 starter and finished 25 games out of first in the NL East as a result. It was Sept. 2, 2010 on a muggy night in Atlanta against the same Braves that Santana left after five innings and 65 pitches with an injury that, at the time, was described as a strained pectoral muscle. The reality of the situation, however, was much worse, and 12 days later, Santana underwent surgery to repair a tear of the anterior capsule of his left shoulder. Santana missed all of last season as he recovered from the surgery, a fairly new procedure one that was first performed on a pitcher in 1998, when Bret Saberhagen underwent the operation with an indeterminate timeline for recovery. He appeared in two games late last season with the St. Lucie Mets of the Florida State League, allowing one run in a total of five innings pitched, and in five spring training starts this March, Santana pitched 18.1 innings, striking out 13 with a 3.44 ERA. There were some questions early as to whether Santana would be back at 100 percent in time for Thursday's start, but based on his team's reaction to their star's return, there was never really any doubt. "He's by far one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around, and that's why I say if anybody could come back from his injury, he could," Collins said. "He gave us all he got, and he did exactly what we thought he would do, (and) even above (that). I knew he throw the ball over the plate, but he just doesn't give in to anybody. It's amazing." In the first inning Thursday, Santana forced a Michael Bourn groundout before allowing a single to third baseman Martin Prado. But Brian McCann flew out to right and second baseman Dan Uggla struck out swinging to end the inning. The next three innings were each 1-2-3 efforts for Santana, who struck out three more batters Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Uggla, again in the process. Matt Diaz, who entered the game as a career .500 hitter against Santana, finally got the Braves back on base with a fifth-inning double to right-center that gave Atlanta its first runner in scoring position of the afternoon. Then things got uncomfortable, the pressure ratcheted up and Mets fans got an early chance to see if Santana was truly back. After forcing a Heyward popout, Santana surrendered back-to-back walks to Atlanta's eight and nine hitters, shortstop Tyler Pastornicky and pitcher Tommy Hanson, to load the bases. After four sharp innings, Santana had lost all control and could hardly reach the plate with fastballs or sliders a troubling development for the Mets that necessitated a mound visit from pitching coach Dan Warthen. Santana started the next at-bat against the leadoff hitter Bourn with two sliders in the dirt, but then settled down, worked the count to 3-2 and eventually forced the speedy center fielder to ground out on a harmless dribbler back to the mound. "That's what he does; that's who he is," Collins said of Santana, who was pulled after five innings and 84 pitches. "He came in and I told him he was done, and I think he was caught up with the adrenaline flowing. I walked down to the end of the bench and I said, You did a great job' and he said, No I've got another one in me.' But I said that's enough for today." It still remains to be seen what Santana's long-term prospectus looks like, but he's pleased with the early returns. "I'm still working, trying to be what I used to be," Santana said. "We're trying to be very careful, but at the same time, I'm not trying to think about it. I'm just trying to go out there and do what I used to do and build up from there." The hope now is that Santana can use Thursday's promising outing as a launching point and add some respectability to a Mets team that entered the season as the likely bet to finish in the NL East cellar. "(He's) the guy who can change the dynamics of our pitching staff the guy who can bring, into that clubhouse, that intestinal fortitude you've got to have," Collins said. "This guy just knows how to win." Santana didn't get a win in his first game back, but his return alone was something was a milestone. And if he can stay healthy, the Mets may be in for a better 2012 than most expected. "A high tide raises all ships," said Mets righthander R.A. Dickey, who will take the mound for Game 2 of the series on Saturday. "His addition to the staff we'll be able to see what it'll mean to us down the road but right out of the chute, you feel more confident that you've got that guy in the rotation." Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner
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