In broad strokes, it was just like old times. Johan Santana and the Mets' bullpen teamed up on a shutout of the Braves at Citi Field on Thursday, with Santana beguiling Braves hitters over five mostly uneventful innings.
So, yes, the "who" and "what" of the Mets' opener were more of the same. The "how," though, was a bit different. The 2012 version of Santana isn't the power pitcher New York acquired in a trade four years ago. In his first start in nearly 19 months, Santana showed the effects of shoulder surgery, but he also showed the ability to overcome those effects.
A pitcher who once averaged more than 93 mph on his fastball didn't hit 90 once on Thursday. His hottest fastball of the afternoon clocked in at 89.7 mph, and he averaged 87.7 on his four-seamer (data courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net). Instead of blowing it by people, Santana located his fastball and mixed in his slider and changeup over an efficient, effective 84-pitch outing.
"He's by far one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around, and that's why I said if anyone could come back from his injury, he could," said Mets manager Terry Collins.
The question is whether it was a one-time thing or whether this can continue. And it's not foolish to think that Santana can be quite effective even at diminished velocity.
That's because of his changeup and slider, which both remain weapons, and because of location. Over the last four or five years, before he was derailed by injury, Santana had become more of a changeup pitcher. After throwing the pitch less than 26 percent of the time in his first six years, Santana was well above that from 2007 to 2010. In 2009, nearly a third of his pitches were changeups.
That's the pattern for Santana now, and if anybody can make it work, he can. His changeup has been his most effective pitch over the course of his career. So as long as the deception, arm speed and arm angle are intact, it can still be a way to get outs.
It won't be easy, of course. The danger in diminished velocity is that when you make mistakes, you pay for them. A poorly located 88-mph fastball is going to go a lot farther, much of the time, than a poorly located 94-mph fastball. For the first four innings on Thursday, nearly 64 percent of Santana's pitches went for strikes; that ratio fell to 50 percent in his lengthy, difficult final frame.
So as long as Santana locates, he should be able to have games such as the one he did Thursday. Which brings up one key point: It likely will be more important than ever for Collins to be aggressive with the hook on Santana. His location clearly faded in his final inning against Atlanta, and it nearly cost him.
When that happens, it will be incumbent on the Mets to get him out of the game. For a pitcher like Santana at this point, it's a bit of a knife-edge. When he's right, he can make hitters look silly. When he starts to miss, the tables are turned.
One potential parallel is a familiar name for Mets fans. Pedro Martinez also dealt with diminished velocity late in his career, turning to offspeed offerings and location to help overcome his lessened stuff. Martinez struggled to stay healthy late in his career, but in 2005 he had a superb season with New York despite averaging 88 mph on his fastball. And that's a tougher assignment for a righty than a lefty.
Nothing's guaranteed, and it won't be easy. It's unwise to make too much of one game. But there were very real reasons to be encouraged by Santana on Thursday, and it's unwise to bet against the kind of talent and competitiveness he's always had.
"It's one game, but it's very, very important to us," Collins said.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.