Collins: Santana will start Opening Day

Mets pitcher Johan Santana throws a bullpen

Mets pitcher Johan Santana throws a bullpen session in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Feb. 21, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Only hours before Johan Santana was to take the mound for just his second mound session this month, Terry Collins took a leap of faith in announcing his belief that the Mets ace will be ready to start Opening Day.

Santana's response?

Not so fast.

It's understandable that Collins, despite the team's conservative approach, visualizes Santana at the front of his rotation to begin the season. The manager doesn't want to consider the alternative. That's why Santana already is penciled in to start the Grapefruit League opener March 5 against the Nationals, an assignment that puts him on track for April 5 at Citi Field.

"In my mind right now, in my heart, he'll be ready," Collins said Tuesday. "I don't think there's any question. He's gearing himself up to be ready."

Collins added the caveat about taking this process "very slowly and very cautiously" but did not let it smother his sunny outlook. "This guy has worked so hard in the last 18 months to get ready," he said, "I think he's going to be ready. I really do."

That work continued for Santana Tuesday, when he threw 30 pitches to Josh Thole off a bullpen mound. The usual Mets' contingent was on hand, with Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen watching closely, only this time, the team's visiting orthopedist looked on, as well.

Santana cruised through the session without incident, nudging his velocity and effort up slightly from Friday's 25-pitch outing. Despite another feel-good morning in the bullpen, the Mets' prodigal ace refused to sign off on Collins' guarantee. When asked about the manager's prediction, Santana made sure to hedge on his answer.

"That's always good," Santana said. "To have an opportunity to be out there on Opening Day is always good. But again, I'm approaching everything one day at a time. Because going through everything I went through last year, one day you feel good; the other day you don't feel so good. It's like a roller coaster.

"Right now, so far, I'm feeling good and then hopefully, after the end or mid-spring training, we'll have a better idea where we're at and see if we can be ready for Opening Day."

Collins also projected that Santana could make 25 to 28 starts for the Mets this year, which would be a serious jump for someone who has not thrown a pitch in the majors since September 2010. That season, before Santana broke down, he made 29 starts. The previous season, he had 25. In the five years leading up to that, Santana never had fewer than 33 starts.

"There might be a time we move him back and skip him," Collins said. "But it's all going to be contingent on how he feels and where we are. But the workload has got to be maintained and it's got to be really watched, and he's on board with it all."

Santana, for his part, tried to put the brakes on Collins' runaway train of optimism.

"That would be great if that happens," Santana said. "I think that's what we're looking for. But I've got to get the first one out of the way and build my way up to get my way up to 28, 30 whatever it is."

Santana -- and the Mets -- will be plenty thrilled just to see him on a major-league mound again, whenever that might be. The best-case scenario is roughly six weeks from now, but Santana knows there are plenty of hurdles to be cleared before then.

"I've learned a lot of things, and one of them is you have to be patient," Santana said. "In that process, there's a lot of things that go through your head -- family, everything -- it makes you strong. It makes you fight and fight your way back.

"That's what I'm very excited about. I'm not done yet. I still have a long way to go. This was a bump in the road and I just got to battle through it and go back to what I used to be."

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