Mets pitcher Johan Santana throws a bullpen session in Port...

Mets pitcher Johan Santana throws a bullpen session in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Feb. 17, 2012) Credit: AP

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Any lingering health questions that followed Johan Santana into Thursday's bullpen session quickly dissipated with each pop of Mike Nickeas' glove. Santana looked strong, located his pitches and displayed the same bubbly persona that has been a part of every workout he's had.

Barring any setbacks, Santana now is cleared to start Sunday against the Marlins at Digital Domain Park.

"For me, it's a day-to-day thing," Santana said. "And every time I go through everything, it's a day closer to being back, so it's definitely good for me."

As impressed as the Mets were with Santana's first exhibition start, a two-inning, 29-pitch stint against the Cardinals on Tuesday, there still was apprehension about how his body would respond in the days that followed. But Santana reported nothing out of the ordinary the next morning and then showed up Thursday excited to climb the bullpen mound.

Each time Santana does so has been an event.

This was no different, with a crowd of media on one side of the six-pack of bullpen mounds and a small crowd of fans on the other. After a short warm-up, Santana plowed through his session with what seemed like a game-caliber effort.

Pitching coach Dan Warthen, who stood in a batter's pose, alternated sides of the plate to give Santana a strike zone to target. After a zippy fastball on the inside edge, Santana -- in full competitive mode -- yelled to Warthen, "How's that one?"

"We worked hard," Santana said. "We're trying to work my way back and to be where we used to be, and I always throw my bullpens with intensity. Being able to do it right now is great. I'm getting back to where I used to be, so that's a good sign. It's what we're looking for."

In Tuesday's start, Santana reached 92 mph on the Mets' radar gun, a reading that seemed high, especially for his Grapefruit debut. But part of that was the adrenaline of facing major-league hitters again for the first time in 18 months, combined with a prolonged period of strengthening his shoulder. Santana is expected to pitch three innings Sunday, and with every hurdle cleared, the Mets can breathe a little easier.

"Each time he goes out there, you see how he's going to react to it," manager Terry Collins said. "I think he's going to be healthy and I think we're going to make some adjustments as we go through spring training to make sure he leaves this camp on this team."


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