Santana made the slow, disappointed walk to the dugout with one out in the second inning Saturday night as a smattering of fans offered golf-like applause, his head bowed in obvious frustration.
This wasn't the way he was supposed to return from a three-week stint on the disabled list after working his way back from a right ankle injury.
Santana was badly roughed up, essentially tossing batting practice in the Mets' 9-3 loss to the Braves before an announced crowd of 30,388 at Citi Field. He allowed eight hits and was charged with eight runs in his 11/3-inning stint, which tied the shortest of his 13-year career.
Freddie Freeman tormented the Mets, driving in five runs with a two-out, two-run double off Santana in the first inning and a three-run homer off Jeremy Hefner that capped a seven-run second. It easily cleared the Home Run Apple in centerfield and gave the Braves a 9-0 lead.
"I'd say it was rust," manager Terry Collins said of Santana, who threw 43 pitches. "That's probably the best fastball I've seen him have since early in the season. [It was] just balls in the middle of the plate. As I told him when I took him out -- no disrespect to the Braves; they've got a very, very good club -- when they hit it, they hit it where nobody was standing. He didn't have a ball hit at anybody.
"It was just a night where it was tough for him because he was throwing strikes and using his pitches. He just wasn't throwing them where he wanted to. His command was off."
Nine of the 13 batters faced by Santana (6-8) reached base. He attributed it to not facing quality hitters in nearly a month. Health, he said, isn't an issue.
"I'm fine," he said. "It was just one of those nights where I didn't execute pitches the way they were supposed to be executed. But overall, I felt fine. I didn't feel anything in my ankle or my shoulder or my whole body."
Still, there has to be some genuine concern about Santana, who is 23 months removed from shoulder surgery and is guaranteed $31 million next year. He has yielded at least six runs in each of his last four starts, marking the first time that's happened in his career. In those four games, he has allowed 27 runs (all earned) and 36 hits in 14 innings for a 17.36 ERA.
In the nine starts since the June 1 no-hitter in which he threw a career-high 134 pitches, Santana is 3-6 with a 7.98 ERA, giving up 39 earned runs and 61 hits in 44 innings.
He allowed no runs in five innings against the Braves on Opening Day, but in three subsequent starts against Atlanta, he has given up 20 runs (18 earned) and 20 hits in 72/3 innings.
"I felt good," he said. "It's just over three weeks, not facing any hitters at this level and then trying to command all your pitches . . . Wasn't my best. I think as I continue, I'll make some progress and improve my command because I think I left some pitches up in the strike zone. When you are pitching against a good team, when you make mistakes like that, that's what's going to happen. I think that was the case today."
Exiting so early was weird for the proud veteran. "It was a long night for me, just sitting here and not being able to be out there and performing and helping," he said. "It's tough. But at least I'm back. I'm just going to make my adjustments and work the next couple of days and hopefully be ready for my next time out there."
Having Santana at optimum health next season is key for the Mets, and neither he nor Collins disputed the possibility that he will be shut down before this season is over.
"We'll see," Santana said. "Right now, we are just going one game at a time and see how it feels. The good thing is my shoulder is fine from surgery . . . I'm hoping to finish the season pitching, but I don't know later on what's going to happen. But right now, I've got to prepare for my next game and see what happens from there."