PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - If anyone other than Johan Santana performed like the two-time Cy Young Award winner did Tuesday against the Astros, the level of anxiety around the Mets would have spiked noticeably.
Had it been Oliver Perez? Tradition Field might have been littered with garbage thrown from the stands.
But this was Santana, so how could it possibly matter that he had to be removed with two outs in the second inning? The Astros harassed him for six hits and four runs, including a solo homer by Kaz Matsui, during a very un-Santana-like 47-pitch performance.
The bottom line, however, is that Santana felt no discomfort in his surgically repaired left elbow, which had bone chips removed Sept. 1, and that was enough for the Mets.
"I don't concern myself with Johan because of the history," Jerry Manuel said. "You're talking about an American League Cy Young winner and you know that he has the heart of the lion. I've seen too, too, too much fight in Johan to be concerned about Johan. I have no hesitation about him at all."
A year ago, Santana, coming off knee surgery, had to combat a case of triceps tendinitis that put his Opening Day start in jeopardy. He ultimately made that start, but struggled most of the season and was unable to extend his elbow. He did not pitch after his Aug. 20 start against the Braves.
Before yesterday's Grapefruit League debut, Santana's only tuneup had been a simulated game facing Rod Barajas and Josh Thole. He made quick work of those two that morning and appeared ready to do the same against the Astros when he struck out Michael Bourn on a changeup to open the game.
But Matsui, the former Met, clobbered a 1-and-2 fastball over the leftfield wall. It was a 91-mph pitch that Santana left on the inside of the plate and Matsui jumped on it. Geoff Blum followed with a double down the leftfield line, and two more hits later, the Mets got Jack Egbert up in the bullpen as Santana's pitch count began to climb.
"They made me work," Santana said. "They were swinging right away. But I felt good because I was able to throw all my pitches. I was a little bit off with my mechanics - releasing the ball - but that's part of spring training. That's what we're here for. Trying to make adjustments and throw my pitches. I didn't feel any problem with my arm, so that's good."
Santana labored through the three-run first inning and didn't look so sharp in the second, either. With two outs, he walked Matsui in the rematch, and Blum ended his day with a run-scoring single that bounced through the hole at shortstop. Out came pitching coach Dan Warthen and Santana headed toward the dugout with a 21.60 ERA.
"I know the numbers are whatever, but I don't really care," Santana said. "I just care about how I feel and everything I was able to do today."
As Barajas said earlier in camp, Santana can wake up in December and have command of his changeup, so that wasn't an issue. Spotting his fastball can take a little time, but Santana was especially pleased with his slider, a pitch that he couldn't throw later in the season last year because the bone chips prevented him from doing it effectively.
"I threw some to righthanders and they swung and missed," Santana said. "So to me, it's a big plus. I have to work my way up. I'm on the working process right now."