MIAMI -- Rarely does a pitcher's side session attract the kind of attention that Johan Santana did before Tuesday night's game at Sun Life Stadium. But Terry Collins took the opportunity to watch his rehabbing ace while standing only a few feet away from the plate.
Collins put aside the dream of having Santana back in the rotation this season long ago. Now, after getting a close-up view of a much healthier Santana, at least the manager can fantasize about his anticipated return in 2012.
"He's an ace -- period," Collins said. "I've heard too many stories about how he's pitched even when he wasn't 100 percent. He still pitched great and if his health is good, I know that his competitiveness, his ability to command the baseball, he'll be as good as we got."
Pitching coach Dan Warthen was encouraged by what he saw as well. Santana is scheduled to start somewhere in the minors Friday, and there is still a ways to go in rehab. But there is a noticeable difference between a healthy Santana and the one that struggled before the shoulder surgery last September.
"He has better velocity," Warthen said, "and his arm slot is the same each and every time. He's not searching for an arm slot that doesn't hurt. Last season he had multiple things that hurt."
Santana reported no problems after his side session. The important thing is that his strength is back after last month's setback.
"It's better," Santana said. "There's a big difference. What I'm looking for is that there's no soreness."