- Adam Rubin, ESPN Staff Writer
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Left-hander Johan Santana's 6.75 Grapefruit League ERA did not cause any alarm. Nor did the fact that he had surgery on Sept. 1 to remove bone chips from his left elbow.
After all, in his first two seasons as a New York Met, Santana rose to the occasion despite some obstacles.
The most memorable example came during his first season with the team, when the ace shut out these very same Florida Marlins in Game No. 161 in 2008. He was pitching on short rest that day and coming off a career-high pitch count, while also dealing with torn meniscus cartilage in his left knee and the pressure of the Mets facing elimination and a second straight collapse in the National League East.
On Monday, with relatively little seemingly at stake, Santana stood out again. Which surprised no one.
Yet, in a game that only counts for 1/162 of the season, he also helped the psyche of a pessimistic fan base. Fans clearly were waiting to pounce had the outcome been different. They even booed the team's medical staff during the pregame introductions, a reminder of last season's glut of injuries and the perception of how they were handled.
Santana limited the Marlins to one run and four hits in six innings and the Mets beat the Marlins 7-1 on Opening Day at Citi Field. Amazingly, the Mets are now a major league-best 32-17 in season openers -- an even more impressive feat considering the franchise lost its first eight.
"You have to start at some point," Santana said. "Today was the beginning of a season for all of us. We have to continue playing the game the right way. But definitely to get the first one out of the way was big for us to get motivated and get that confidence."
Of course, as manager Jerry Manuel alluded to after the victory, the test now comes with the rest of the rotation -- John Maine and Jon Niese for the rest of this series, then Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez against the Washington Nationals -- before Santana follows this 103-pitch outing on Sunday.
"We got out of the gate, but we haven't gone anywhere," Manuel colorfully, and candidly, said.
Manuel suggested it's critical to win early while still "trying to put the pieces in place" -- from the rotation, to a bullpen with no clear-cut bridge to closer Francisco Rodriguez, to filling voids while center fielder Carlos Beltran, shortstop Jose Reyes and first baseman Daniel Murphy are on the disabled list. "We still have some things we have to figure out," Manuel said.
At least the Mets head into an off day upbeat, and with the dialogue finally having shifted to on-field play.
As for Santana, he retired the first seven batters he faced Monday. He then stranded two runners in scoring position in the fourth when he coaxed Ronny Paulino into a fly out to shallow center field.
In reality, Santana's scoreless effort should have continued beyond the sixth, when Jorge Cantu delivered a two-out double that scored Chris Coghlan. Replays showed Luis Castillo tagged Cantu before the Marlin reached second base -- and also before Coghlan had crossed the plate -- but umpire Jeff Nelson ruled Cantu safe.
Regardless, Santana outpitched Marlins ace Josh Johnson, who suffered his first career defeat against the Mets -- Johnson had been 7-0 in nine starts. He departed without recording an out in the sixth, during what became a four-run frame for the Mets that pushed their lead to 6-1.
Santana, making his third straight Opening Day start as a Met, struck out five and walked two in his first major league action since Aug. 20, 2009, against the Atlanta Braves. After that start, he opted for surgery with the Mets hopelessly out of the race.
"I felt good throughout the whole game, and that's a good sign," said Santana, whose signature changeup and slider were ineffective late last season because elbow discomfort prevented him from following through on pitches. "I didn't feel anything in my arm."