PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Johan Santana dramatically changes the perception of spring training every time he touches a baseball.

Meaningless? Practice?

Not for Santana, who has spent the past 18 months wondering what it might be like to face major-league hitters again, as he finally he did Tuesday. And definitely not for the Mets, a team that watched the two-time Cy Young winner in much the same way a drowning man views an approaching boat.

Santana cannot promise salvation for the Mets, but he does offer hope, and that was the message as he pitched two scoreless, problem-free innings in an 8-6 win over the Cardinals at Digital Domain Park. He threw a total of 29 pitches, 17 for strikes, and the only hit allowed was a single to Matt Carpenter.

Pitching coach Dan Warthen said Santana threw one fastball as high as 92 mph and averaged 90. That was an eye-opener, especially this early in the process, with still three more starts left before Opening Day, April 5, at Citi Field.

"God Almighty, I don't know if we can have a bigger step forward today than that," manager Terry Collins said. "We take enough body blows as it is. We need to be able to put a smile on our face and say, 'Gosh, darn, that's a good day.' That's some joy. Obviously we'll wait and see what the outcome is going to be tomorrow and the next day, but that was pretty fun to watch."

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Collins is talking about Santana's ability to bounce back after that type of exertion, which is crucial to his long-term success. The plan is for Santana to start again on Sunday against Miami, with a slight uptick in his pitch count, but he wasn't looking that far ahead.

"I'm competing," Santana said. "I was excited about it. Even as I was preparing myself prior to the game, I was anxious to go out there and do it. I know it's a game situation and you've got to do your job out there, but I would just focus on making sure I do the mechanics the right way and not feeling anything in my arm. That's how I felt today."

The highlight of the day was a 1-and-1 changeup that he threw to Yadier Molina, who swung through it with such force that the crowd let out a collective "Oooh."

When Molina was asked about it, he held up his hands in exasperation. "I didn't see it," he said. "He had me fooled."

Said Mets catcher, Josh Thole: "He got a pretty good chuckle out of that one. That's the Johan changeup that everybody's used to seeing. It's encouraging to see."

R.A. Dickey, who was scheduled to follow Santana, couldn't concentrate on his own warm-up throws because he was too busy watching Santana. "It's not like Tommy John when you expect people to come back in eight months and be right," Dickey said. "But with what he had done, you just never really know . . . I think we're certainly encouraged and hopeful that he's going to be able to bring what he brought today consistently."

Maybe the most promising sign was a fielding play. In the first inning, after a leadoff walk, Santana deftly gloved a hard comebacker from Skip Schumaker and turned it into a 1-6-3 double play. It felt just like he had remembered it.

"That's what we were looking for," Santana said. "To be healthy, to compete, and to go out there and have some fun. It was a good start today."