Santana's April 5 assignment will come just under 19 months removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder. A rare, though increasingly common operation for pitchers, shoulder capsule surgery has at best derailed careers and at worst ended them. Knowing that, Santana mostly avoided talk of Opening Day throughout the first six weeks of Spring Training. Even Collins, his manager, recently expressed surprise that Santana had made it through the bulk of camp without a single setback.
Caution rules in Port St. Lucie, where a "Prevention and Recovery" sign still hangs prominently in the clubhouse entranceway. Had Santana felt even the slightest bit of abnormal soreness following a 71-pitch bullpen session on Saturday, the Mets would have backed him up to the fifth game of the season, starting R.A. Dickey in the opener. Instead, Santana will pitch against the Braves on Thursday, followed by Dickey, Jon Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee, in that order.
"At some point, everything has to start," Santana said. "I believe we still have a little way to go as far as building everything up, getting more games and getting through a season. That's definitely another step that we have to go through. But as of right now, where we're at right now, I feel really good and I feel like we've accomplished a lot."
What the Mets accomplished was a healthy spring for their ace, who suffered multiple setbacks last summer in his first attempted return. Though Santana is now completely healthy, he threw only 88 pitches in his final Spring Training start, five days prior to his bullpen session. His arm is not stretched out to the extent of most starters, who are capable of at least approaching triple-digit pitch totals early in the season.
But the early-season schedule does provide a natural opportunity for Santana to ease into a normal workload. Due to the team's inordinate amount of off days in April, Santana will pitch on extra rest in each of his first four starts, five of his first six and six of his first eight. He will not throw on normal rest until April 28 in Denver, nearly a full month into the regular season.
As Santana eases into that schedule, Collins said, he is unlikely to amass more than 95 pitches in any game -- perhaps throwing as few as 80 in his debut. More important than having Santana pitch deep into outings is having him take the mound every five games without interruption.
"Obviously, we're a different team with Johan healthy than we are with Johan not being healthy," third baseman David Wright said. "I think that's stating the obvious."
In case it is not obvious to some, the statistical evidence is overwhelming. In nearly three full seasons with the Mets prior to his shoulder operation, Santana posted a 40-25 record and 2.85 ERA, despite pitching through injury, undergoing multiple offseason surgeries and playing for teams with overall losing records. A two-time Cy Young Award winner with the Twins, Santana finished seventh or better in Cy Young Award voting four other times in his career. From the start of the 2004 season through the time of Santana's injury, no one in baseball posted a lower ERA (2.87) or recorded more strikeouts (1487 in 1512 1/3 innings).
"That's a tremendous home-field advantage for us when he's on the mound," Wright said. "There's just a certain energy and electricity in the air when he takes the ball."
With Santana set for the opener, the rest of the Mets' rotation fell easily into place. Dickey and Niese were the consensus No. 2 and 3 starters based upon their past track records and strong spring showings. Though there was some question as to whether Pelfrey or Gee would assume the fourth spot in the rotation, Pelfrey squelched that argument with six strong innings in his last Grapefruit League start.
Regardless of order, those five hope to repeat the remarkable consistency of New York's rotation last summer, when Pelfrey, Dickey, Niese, Gee and Chris Capuano combined to start a franchise-record 106 consecutive games from early May through late August.
"Going out every five days on a consistent basis with the same guys is really important for a team," Gee said.
As is having an ace. When he was visiting New York over the winter, Santana sought out his manager and vowed to be ready for Opening Day. At the time, Collins brushed it off as mere offseason optimism, telling him they would talk again come spring.
It was not until after his bullpen session Saturday that Santana repeated his assurances.
"You've got your pitcher for Thursday," Santana told Collins as they spoke briefly on the field.
"Just mentally for all of us, you can take a deep breath," Dickey said. "It takes the pressure off all of us."