Mets ace Johan Santana is still a reclamation project

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Johan Santana. (wikipedia.org)
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Johan Santana's 2012 season, before Tuesday night in Atlanta, had been one straight line of progress.

He had shoulder surgery in September 2010, and missed the entire 2011 season. Just how much he'd pitch in 2012 remained a question of how his shoulder responded with each step forward—throwing from flat ground, from a mound, pitching in a game, stretching to multiple innings.

At any moment, it could have stalled. But once Santana stretched out sufficiently, then pitched well in consecutive starts, it almost started to look like his recovery was something he'd moved past.

Why not? This is the man who pitched a three-hitter on three days' rest, with a knee that required surgery, to keep the Mets in the race back in 2008. Couldn't he cheat surgical recovery, too?

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Tuesday night answered that question, resoundingly. No, he could not.

His performance is not, by itself, terrible news. But it is a reminder that the Johan Santana under contract to the 2012 Mets is vulnerable in a way the old Santana wasn't.

Velocity wasn't a problem in his start. He stayed up around 88-89 miles per hour with his fastball, the place he was living in his first two impressive outings. But Santana simply couldn't locate his pitches, and that led to him falling behind in the count consistently, and then to throw fastballs in easy-to-hit places.

The result was that he pitched just 1 1/3 innings, the shortest outing of his career.

This is the new Santana reality: He's not always going to be terrific. Before his surgery, Santana had never pitched fewer than three innings in any start, and had at least one strikeout in every start of his career. Even in his worst performances, in other words, Santana had never pitched like this.

It's still a massively positive thing for the Mets that he's back, particularly since they've invested so much money in him: $24 million in 2012, $31.5 million ($25.5 million in salary, $6 million buyout for 2014 option) in 2013. And they don't have much in the way of alternatives, anyway.

How Santana pitches in his next start, scheduled for Monday against the San Francisco Giants, will say a lot about whether his short start against Atlanta was an outlier. And the start after that, when New York's schedule forces him to pitch on normal rest for the first time all season, will say a lot about whether Santana is in the kind of shape to give the Mets the 30 starts they'll need from him to even think about contending.