ATLANTA -- As Johan Santana warmed in Turner Field's visiting bullpen Tuesday and climbed atop the mound, he flashed back to the scene of more than 19 months ago. It was here in Atlanta that Santana tore the anterior capsule in his left shoulder, here that he suffered the single worst day of his Major League career.
"I pictured the whole thing," Santana said. "But I put it away."
And yet Tuesday's result was nonetheless distressing for the Mets, many of whom gathered on the pitching mound during the second inning. The discussion was brief. Santana had just given up six runs in a 9-3 loss to the Braves, recording four outs in the shortest start of his career. When the conference dispersed, Santana was in the dugout, with eight innings left to chew and dissect and digest.
"It was just a rough one," Santana said.
Rough and brief. The deluge occurred in the second inning, when Dan Uggla walked. And Matt Diaz singled. And Freddie Freeman and Tyler Pastornicky doubled. Santana might have had a chance to corral the inning after that, until Ike Davis threw pitcher Randall Delgado's sacrifice bunt well wide of third base in an attempt to nab Pastornicky. Two batters later, after Jason Heyward singled to drive home the fifth run of the inning, the mound conference commenced.
Santana had thrown 34 pitches in the inning, 55 overall, and in his words "didn't even sweat." It hardly mattered. Here, of all places, his manager did not want to jeopardize any sliver of the future by allowing Santana to continue to throw.
"Nobody goes through a whole year without having a rough outing sometime," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "We hoped we didn't have to experience this, but he'll bounce back from it."
Drama seemed to evaporate from Turner Field at that point, despite the fact that the Mets chipped Delgado for two runs in the fourth inning and put two runners on base with one out in the fifth. Delgado struck out Bay and Lucas Duda to end that threat, and the Braves put the game out of reach shortly thereafter.
To be certain, Santana's overall body of work suggests that the Mets should not panic. Never before in his career had the left-hander pitched less than three innings in a game, the most recent such outing coming at Yankee Stadium in 2009. No team had knocked him around this thoroughly in Spring Training, either. Santana's first two starts of the season were both successes, and the left-hander's velocity was no different in this one, sitting in the upper 80's and often rising as high as 90 miles per hour.
The difference was his effectiveness. Throughout Tuesday's start, Santana struggled both to command his pitches within the strike zone and to put away batters with two strikes. During the at-bat that best defined his outing, Santana jumped out to a 1-2 count on Freeman. Atlanta's first baseman then fouled off everything that Santana threw within the strike zone, taking the rest of his pitches for balls. On the 11th pitch of the at-bat, Freeman finally doubled to left on a 90-mph fastball.
It was a significant departure from Opening Day, when Santana limited a similar Atlanta lineup to two hits and two walks over five innings at Citi Field.
"I think he would tell you his changeup wasn't as good tonight," Braves outfielder Matt Diaz said. "He had more depth on Opening Day."
Yet Santana and catcher Josh Thole insisted that Santana's offerings were just as crisp as they had been in his previous two starts. The difference was command that, in Thole's words, "came and went."
By the time Davis grounded out to end things and the Mets retired to the clubhouse, they were hardly concerned about their fourth loss of the season, dropping them further out of first place than they have been all year. The Mets were simply hoping that this might not be the start of a trend for their ace.
"He's come so far," Thole said. "To see that, it strikes you a little bit."
Santana, for his part, stressed the positives of the night -- namely, that unlike in his previous outing two years ago at Turner Field, he came away from this one healthy. The Mets can stomach a blip here and there if they know that Santana will still be here in May, in August, in September and beyond. At this point in his recovery, the left-hander's mere presence is more important than any sort of persistent excellence.