Santana looks great after offseason elbow surgery

Johan Santana throws off a mound for the

Johan Santana throws off a mound for the first time since having elbow surgery in September 2009. (Jan. 26, 2010) (Credit: Newsday / Ken Davidoff)

Ken Davidoff

Newsday columnist Ken Davidoff. Ken Davidoff

Davidoff joined Newsday in 2001, covering the Yankees for

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If ever there existed a safe haven in the Mets' universe, a place for them to escape their troubles and enjoy life's simpler things, it had to be here, at the minor-league complex.

For under a radiant sun Tuesday morning, Johan Santana threw his 19th pitch, a changeup, and found himself especially proud.

"Oh!" the Mets' ace exclaimed. "What up?!"

"Baseball is about having fun, and that's what I do," Santana told reporters, after his six-minute, 25-pitch session. "That's what I do all of the time. The first one of the year is always good."

This served as more than his first one of the year, of course. It marked his first official mound session since he underwent surgery Sept. 1 to remove bone chips from his left elbow.

And although Santana hardly looked ready to start the April 5 opener against Florida, he appeared pain-free. He plans to make his spring-training debut in the second week of March, tally five Grapefruit League starts and be throwing 90 pitches by his Opening Day assignment.

In these turbulent times for the organization, Santana is more than the Mets' ace. He is becoming a new face of the team, a new beacon of hope.

"When we look at other clubs, we're fortunate to say that we have a Johan Santana," general manager Omar Minaya said. "It's going to be up to other guys to step up, but to have that pitcher on your team, it's a good start."

As for those "other guys" . . . the Mets' options to upgrade their starting rotation are diminishing quickly, as Ben Sheets (Oakland) and Jon Garland (San Diego) came off the board Tuesday. John Smoltz is the top remaining option, and if you look at his strikeouts/walks/innings pitched ratio in 2009 (73/18/78) and combine that with his deserved reputation as a tough guy, the 42-year-old actually might help.

This was the wrong offseason to badly need starting pitching, and the Mets deserve some credit for not overbidding for question marks like Randy Wolf, Jason Marquis and Joel PiƱeiro. Nevertheless, these Mets are a win-now team. It's not realistic to expect bounce-back seasons from all four of Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez (who looked good throwing Tuesday) and John Maine. It's not even remotely realistic.

The middle and back of the rotation might very well undermine the Mets' chances. At the top, though? They should be all right.

Santana looks terrific, lean and mean. He is about as smart and self-aware a pitcher as you're going to find, and he picked up on his own progress Tuesday.

"You know, one of the things that I remember from last year, I wasn't able to finish off my pitches," he said. "I wasn't able to lift my [right] leg the way it's supposed to, because I wasn't able to reach out. I was trying to see that.

"I was able to see my leg when I finished the pitch. That's big. To see that this early is a good sign."

Santana came off as playful and confident in this Mets mini-camp, a role model to the rest of the players here who, combined, can't match Santana's $21-million salary for this coming season.

After his session, he took off for his Fort Myers home, on the other side of the state. He won't be around for today's farewell. Yet he accomplished plenty with a little.

For six minutes, he had the Mets smiling. Helping them smile for six months, of course, won't be as easy.