Andy McCullough of the Star Ledger reported that the curtain on this camp’s main attraction raised at eight minutes past noon Friday, when Mets manager Terry Collins noticed a gigantic gray vessel hovering toward Digital Domain Park. He spotted the GOODYEAR logo and began to howl.
Just another set of eyes observing his team’s most prized possession, Johan Santana, as he took the mound for the first time since last fall.
“Sandy, you don’t think this is a big day?” Collins called out to his general manager. Sandy Alderson, sporting an orange Mets cap, ambled onto the grass in left field. “They brought in the blimp for this!”
As he stretched, Santana shook his head at the gathering crowd of reporters and team officials.“You’re acting like I’ve never thrown a baseball before,” he said. Alderson then looked skyward at the blimp and said to his rehabbing ace, “I hope your agent’s paying for that.”
They all could laugh in those cautious moments before Santana toed the rubber, and they all would rave after his 27-pitch bullpen session ended without incident. All optimistic declarations, of course, must be tempered by this knowledge: Santana still has to prove his surgically repaired left shoulder can handle the strain of pitching every five days. There is no guarantee this is possible.
So a lively bullpen session, one which left his manager giddy, means only so much. The biggest tests for Santana occur today, the day after he throws, when he discovers how his arm feels and decides whether he can complete his usual work.
The Mets plan to place him on a normal schedule this spring, no restrictions required, with the hope he can take the ball on Opening Day at Citi Field. To get there, his ability to recover means as much as his ability to command the strike zone.
“We’ll see how it feels tomorrow,” Santana said. “Tomorrow definitely is an important day, and we’ll see how I recover from it.”
Collins intends to meet with Santana each day to gauge his status. He charted a similar course last spring as outfielder Carlos Beltran tended to his ravaged knees. As with Beltran, Santana’s progress will be measured in small increments. The occasional hold-up — a day off from fielding practice, a delayed bullpen session — are expected to occur during these next two months.
Yet for a club desperate for Santana’s presence, Friday created excitement. Standing watch were the team’s regular coterie of coaches, from big-league staff members Dan Warthen and Ricky Bones to minor-league instructors Guy Conti and Al Jackson. Midway through, Santana spun a slider that snapped late and low into catcher Josh Thole’s glove.
“Save that!” Collins shouted. “Save that one.”
During the days leading up to Friday, pitching coach Dan Warthen commented that Santana has been able to maintain his arm slot and “finish” his pitches with full extension. Both mechanical tasks were a chore during rehab appearances last season.
“When I was hurt, I wasn’t able to finish,” Santana said. “My mechanics were totally different. And now I’m getting back to what I used to be.” Santana added he wanted to be “able to get that delivery with no problems and let the ball do everything. I’m not trying to push it or muscle it, anything.”
The show wrapped up at 12:29 p.m. Santana cried “What?” for comic affect, as the coaches, catcher and ace formed a circle to discuss the day’s events. “You saw the smile on his face,” Collins said a few minutes later. “You don’t think he’s happy with what’s going on?”
One test down. Many more to come.