JUPITER, Fla. -- Statistics are one thing. Anecdotal proof of Johan Santana's sharpness came in the middle innings Wednesday, when Cardinals third baseman David Freese twice lost the grip on his bat while flailing and missing at Santana's offspeed pitches. First was a slider in the fourth inning, then a changeup in the sixth. In each instance, Freese's bat went flying into the stands.
"There are some minor steps, there are some baby steps and there are some giant steps," Mets manager Terry Collins said afterward. "And today was a giant step forward."
In addition to whiffing six batters in six innings, Santana held a lineup full of Cardinals regulars to six hits and a run in his longest outing to date. Though he was still not ready to declare himself ready for Opening Day after easily his best performance of the spring, Santana continued to express confidence that he is on the proper track.
"We're getting closer," the left-hander said. "Every time that I go through one day, I'm closer to coming back. I'm definitely working my way to be ready for Opening Day. We'll see how everything goes."
As he has after each of his four Grapefruit League outings, Santana indicated that a more significant test will come in two days, when he attempts to throw his routine between-starts bullpen session. If he feels no pain in his surgically repaired left shoulder, he will remain on track to pitch again on Monday against the Cardinals.
So far, Santana has felt nothing even remotely abnormal in his shoulder as his pitch count continues to climb. Wednesday's outing saw him throw 48 of his 69 pitches for strikes, a far better ratio than earlier in the spring. And he did it while maintaining his velocity in the upper 80s, jumping above 90 miles per hour on occasion.
If all continues to go according to plan, Santana will pitch again Monday before making his final spring outing -- likely an abbreviated one -- on March 31. Then he will take the mound at Citi Field on April 5, pitching in a regular season Major League game for the first time since Sept. 2, 2010.
"Obviously we're very optimistic about the way he's worked so hard," Collins said. "He's never missed a beat. He's done exactly what he's been asked to do."