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Johan Santana shines as Mets win on Opening Day

Johan Santana #57 of the New York Mets

Johan Santana #57 of the New York Mets pitches against the Atlanta Braves. (April 5, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

A return to a major-league mound that started promisingly quickly began to unravel in the fifth inning Thursday for Johan Santana.

A one-out double was compounded by walks to the Braves' No. 8 and 9 hitters to load the bases with two outs. It seemed as if the scoreless tie soon could give way to a big inning.

But Santana -- more than a year and a half removed from his last regular-season outing -- reminded his Mets teammates, his manager and the fans just how good he really is. And more importantly, how much he has been missed at Citi Field.

After falling behind 3-and-1, Santana escaped by getting Michael Bourn to hit a full-count comebacker. That was his last pitch as he went five shutout innings and allowed only two hits in the Mets' 1-0 victory over Atlanta on Opening Day.

David Wright drove in the run with a single to left in the sixth, and the Mets' new-look bullpen pitched four innings. It was the Mets' first shutout on Opening Day since another 1-0 win in 14 innings against the Phillies in 1998.

Though Santana didn't get the win -- Ramon Ramirez, who pitched 11/3 innings, did -- his return to form was a victory in itself for the Mets.

"I'm happy," said Santana, who pitched for the first time since September 2010 after undergoing left shoulder surgery to repair the anterior capsule. "Finally I have an opportunity to go out there in a game that counts. It was very important.

"I'm still working to be what I used to be. The way I've approached everything is to try to be careful but, at the same time, try not to think about it."

An announced sellout crowd of 42,080 -- the biggest in Citi Field's four-year history -- witnessed Santana's comeback. He walked two and struck out five on 84 pitches (50 strikes), falling one pitch shy of Terry Collins' anticipated 85-95 pitch count.

Santana retired 12 batters in a row, relying heavily on his four-seamer, which was clocked at 90 mph in the first inning, and his slider to keep hitters off balance.

"I've only been around this guy for a year, but the stories I've heard in the past, he's lived up to every one of them," Collins said. "He is, by far, one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around."

Santana escaped the fifth-inning jam when Ike Davis jumped to catch his high throw to first to end the inning.

"Johan never ceases to amaze, I think, anybody," Wright said. "There's very few guys that can come back from that injury and do what he's done in the time period. It just goes to show you he worked his tail off."

Said catcher Josh Thole: "He's a workhorse. He's going to pound the strike zone. He's going to do what Johan does, and he did an outstanding job today."

Before the sixth, Collins made his way over to Santana at the end of the dugout. "You did a great job," the manager said.

Buoyed by the adrenaline rush, Santana assured Collins he had another inning in him. "I said, 'I know, but that's enough for today,' " Collins said.

After months of rehabilitation, Santana finally reaped the rewards. But his teammates said the lefty's presence stretches far beyond the baseball diamond.

"He's definitely a shot of life," Wright said. "Every time he comes in the clubhouse he's in a great mood as far as joking around, keeping us loose. Provides excellent leadership for the young pitchers . . . Having him around and his presence, I think, is going to be huge for us."

Santana said it was imperative that he break camp with the team.

"Just to be around and hang out with the guys and be just another guy in the clubhouse is very important," he said. "And they feel the same way. So it's definitely good to be back."

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