Johan Santana pitched in his first game since September 2010 Thursday afternoon against the Atlanta Braves, and looked quite a bit like his old self doing it.
All eyes were on Santana as he took the ball for opening day in Queens, and he was held to a strict 95-pitch count by the Mets as he recovers from shoulder surgery that kept him out for a whole season.
I am still working to try to be what I used to be, Santana said. I just try to do what I used to do and go from there, I try not to think about it too much.
He went five innings, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out five. He threw just 80 pitches, 50 of them for strikes, before the Mets lifted him after the fifth in favor of Ramon Ramirez.
The two-time Cy Young Award winner had his old stuff for the most part. His four-seam fastball never touched 90 but hovered in the 87-89 MPH range on the Citi Field scoreboard. His changeup was nasty, and he had Braves batters out on their front foot quite a bit, especially during his second strikeout of Dan Uggla.
Santana's bread and butter, his slider, was down a bit. It was clocked in the low 80s on the scoreboard but he kept it down in the zone and made it a hard pitch to hit.
I had a few times today where I threw bad pitches, he said. My slider, I didn't locate it a few times but I came back and got the guys out.
The most important thing for Santana was that he was able to use all three pitches and to set up one with the other. That is when he feels he is most successful, and it certainly showed.
Santana wasn't tested much until the fifth inning. In that frame his control abandoned him and he loaded the bases on a double to Matt Diaz and walks to Tyler Pastornicky and his opposite number Tommy Hanson, both in 3-2 counts.
After a visit from pitching coach Dan Warthen, Santana struggled again, going down 3-1 to Michael Bourn. But Santana showed flashes of his old brilliance, locating his fastball on the corner at the knees for strike two then inducing Bourn to ground out on a chopper to the pitcher's mound.
The performance is very encouraging for the Mets, who as recently as the beginning of spring training were unsure if Santana would even be ready for Opening Day. He looked healthy and strong in the early part of his start, and though he fell off late he will doubtlessly improve his stamina as the season progresses.
Most importantly, Santana gives the Mets staff a swagger that only comes with having a lights-out ace to lead you. Despite his injuries and their effect on his pitches, he knows how to get people out and that inspires other pitchers around him.
To me it was very important to break camp with the team and to be a part of it, he said. Just hanging out with the guys and being just another player is important.