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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Santana's comeback has been simply Amazin'

Mets pitcher Johan Santana is congratulated by catcher

Mets pitcher Johan Santana is congratulated by catcher Mike Nickeas. (May 26, 2012) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

As Johan Santana continued to make fast work of the Padres, and with Saturday's shutout looking inevitable, pitching coach Dan Warthen turned to Terry Collins in the dugout.

"Could you have imagined this?" Warthen said.

It was a rhetorical question, of course, because no one did. And during his weaker moments, alone in Port St. Lucie for what seemed like forever, Santana probably didn't, either.

There was little doubt Santana would pitch again for the Mets after his 2010 surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder. The team's orthopedist, David Altchek, told him as much after he completed the operation.

But Santana's failed comeback last season began to erode the expectations that he ever would become an ace again, never mind the caliber of a two-time Cy Young winner. At the start of spring training this year, the Mets first dialed up the optimism, then throttled back as Opening Day crept closer.

Now here we are, almost two months into the season, and Santana already has his first shutout. It was a four-hitter that would have been a three-hitter if Andres Torres hadn't been playing in the Shake Shack line on Yonder Alonso's two-out pop-up to shallow centerfield in the first inning.

So on Memorial Day weekend, Santana is sitting with a 2.75 ERA after 10 starts, with 60 strikeouts in 59 innings. Forget the 2-2 record. Even for Santana, who can't magically conjure up more run support, some things are impossible. But apparently, not many.

"Who's to put limitations on anybody?" said R.A. Dickey, a product of perseverance himself. "I think it has much more to do with the person than the surgery. You don't get to where he was without working, and he knows the value of it. If you were to ask him, he wished that it could have been sooner. But he's put in the time required to get it right and you're seeing the fruit of that."

This Mets team has been full of surprises, and they pulled a few more out of their blue caps Saturday. Let me see a show of hands from everyone who picked Vinny Rottino to go deep. A grand slam for Mike Nickeas? C'mon. Get serious.

But in scanning that list, Santana stands out as the biggest stunner, and not merely because he's back on a mound. The Mets desperately needed him to be an ace, and now it appears that's more than a label.

For all the platitudes tossed at Santana, from his work ethic to competitive drive, he wasn't going to get by on reputation alone in 2012. But Saturday's outing was Santana to the core. His fastball may hover in the range of 87 to 89 mph -- it topped out at 91 -- but when located properly, it makes his changeup as lethal as ever.

He's at a place now that once felt very far away, one to which he wondered if he ever could return. "You never know," said Santana, who threw 74 of his 96 pitches for strikes. "You always have to go out there and perform. Every time you have the opportunity, you have to do it."

At this stage, he's cleared every hurdle placed in front of him by the shoulder surgery, and ahead of schedule.

"It's Johan, so it doesn't surprise you," Warthen said, "but it is pretty spectacular that he was able to do that. I think we believed that June 1 would be the time we'd start to see real good signs of what he is, and we're very close to that now."

Santana's recovery often is compared to the Nationals' Chien-Ming Wang, who had the same surgery, but he's outgrown that chart. Warthen explained that Santana relies more on his elbow, forearm and hand to deliver his changeup; Wang leans more on the shoulder for his trademark sinker.

Is Santana no longer a concern? That's premature to say. But for the Mets to keep beating expectations, Santana must do it, too, and he's been leading the way so far. Imagine that.


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