NEW YORK -- Johan Santana wanted to hang up an outing like this -- "in a game that counted" he stressed -- to confirm what spring training couldn't:
He's close to back.
But even more than that, the Mets' franchise badly needed Santana to show something this encouraging on his first trip to the mound in 19 months. Without that, the blank-slate promise of another Opening Day was not going to be enough to keep the "What ifs" alive for this team through the weekend. Because Santana is more than the Mets' ace.
A strong Santana also means hope.
And for the five masterful, shutout innings that Santana pitched in the Mets' crisp 1-0 win Thursday over the Atlanta Braves, Santana was the best antidote the Mets had for the defeatist predictions they lugged into this season or the expected patches of empty seats at Citi Field. He was the good news that overrode the sight of new centerfielder Andres Torres getting picked off first base and later pulling up lame, or Jason Bay continuing that 0-for-2012 RBI streak that he's dragged around all of spring training.
Torres has taken the departed Jose Reyes' place atop the order but won't bring the same electricity. Bay picked up at the plate where he left off last season: He's a good guy still trying to figure out where his hitting stroke has gone since he ran into the wall two seasons ago, and all he got in return Thursday was a possible three-run homer that the wind helped die on the track.
But Santana, who hadn't pitched in a big league game since September 2010, when he hurt his shoulder and eventually found out he needed surgery for a torn anterior cap that few pitchers ever fully rebound from, had swing-and-miss stuff against the Atlanta Braves. Not the kind that lights up the radar gun. But swing-and-miss stuff in the 88-89 mph range just the same.
That alone made it a terrific start, even if Santana final line -- 5 innings, 2 hits, 5 strikeouts and zero runs -- wasn't so strong. He was good through his 84th and last pitch. Then he actually made Mets manager Terry Collins laugh after wriggling out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth that he created by walking Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson and then dramatically ended by making a gotta-have-it 3-1 pitch to Michael Bourn, and then getting him on a comebacker to the mound to keep his shutout intact as the home crowd stood and roared.
Collins said Santana's adrenaline was still spiking when he walked down to the end of the bench and said, 'You did a great job.'"
"No -- I got another one in me," Santana shot back.
"Yeah, I know," Collins said. "But that's enough for today."
It was more than enough. It was terrific. When asked to rate it himself, Santana said "I'm happy" at least five or six times.
Santana has said all along he'd be able to tell by the hitter's reactions if he could live in the big leagues with the diminished velocity he still has. He'd always been a pitcher, not just a thrower, even before he was hurt, relying on arguably the best changeup in the business. But what Friday showed him is he can still change speeds and locate his pitches enough to pull off what he thinks the art of winning pitching is: "Keeping hitter's off balance. Having command and control of all my pitches. Changing speeds."
"And I was able to compete," a gratified Santana said.
Santana's performance was the best news the Mets could've gotten on a throwback day in which a lot of nostalgia, good and bad, was swirling around.
Reyes' absence at shortstop and in the left corner of the clubhouse, where his laughter used to lighten up the room most days, felt odd. Owner Jeff Wilpon was seen around the batting cage before the game, but his embattled father, Fred, was not. The Mets' players went through pregame drills wearing No. 8 jerseys in memory of Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter, who passed away over the winter. And before a pregame ceremony was held on the field in Carter's honor, former teammates Darryl Strawberry and Mookie Wilson did a lot of heartfelt reminiscing about the years they shared with him, back when the Mets -- not the Yankees -- ruled New York.
"They didn't mention the Yankees when we rolled out in the '80s," Strawberry said.
That seems like a long time ago now, Wilson admitted. But still, if the Mets can get 12 to 15 wins from Santana plus a bounce-back year from David Wright (who had Thursday's game-winning RBI single) the season will have a totally different glow.
There's no chance these Mets will be as wild or interesting as the teams that Strawberry laughed about Thursday, saying: "You'd walk into that clubhouse and there was no telling who was going to be climbing the walls and who was going to be fighting with somebody." But these Mets already proved last year that they'll at least fight with Collins in their ear, goading them along.
When Collins was asked before the game if his team again has a "certain edge" to it, he pounced on the question as if he'd planted it himself. "I don't know if there's an 'edge' to this team," Collins answered, "but I do think they're a bit bothered that people don't think they're any good. That's a slap in the face if you're a major league baseball player."
Trying hard doesn't matter if you're not good enough. The Mets need to play well. But if Santana can stay healthy and Ike Davis, Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy all hit like they can as well as along with Wright, it's not unreasonable to think the Mets can scratch out 75 or so wins, maybe even flirt with . 500. Santana is that important. His tenacity can be that instructive, even contagious.
"He stood up [today] for everything we talked about all spring: the guy who can change the dynamics of our pitching staff, the guy who can bring into that clubhouse that winning intestinal fortitude that you've gotta have," Collins said. "This guy knows how to win. This guy just never gives in, to anybody. He doesn't care what the situation is. And it's amazing. I've only been around this guy for a year. But, the stories I've heard in the past, I mean, he's lived up to every one of them. He's by far one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around."
This is a different Santana who's come back. Even he says so himself. But elements of him aren't that different. When he was asked Friday how it felt to get out of that fifth-inning jam or paint the corner with that 3-1 pitch to Bourn that he had to have as the home crowd howled, Santana shrugged and smiled and finally said, "I felt like myself."