PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. • When it came to judging how New York Mets ace Johan Santana looked in his return to the mound Tuesday after a lengthy layoff, perhaps the biggest tell was what Yadier Molina didn't see.
In the second inning, the lefty struck him out with a signature changeup.
"I didn't see it," Molina said. "He threw me one, I just didn't see it. He had me fooled."
For the second time in as many games this week, the Cardinals faced an established ace who missed most (if not all) of 2011 because of injury. On Monday, the Miami Marlins brought Josh Johnson back to the mound for the first time since shoulder inflammation ended his 2011 after just nine starts. Santana did not pitch in the majors at all in 2011 as he recovered from shoulder surgery. On Friday, the Cardinals de-ice an ace when Adam Wainwright starts a game for the first time since his elbow surgery.
Santana articulated what all three want from their first starts.
"I was anxious to get out there," the lefty said after his two scoreless innings during an 8-6 Mets win at Digital Domain Park. "I know this is a game situation and you've got to do your job out there. But the focus was on making sure I was doing the mechanics the right way and feeling good. I didn't feel anything in my arm."
A two-time Cy Young Award-winner, Santana pitched two scoreless innings against the Cardinals on Tuesday, allowing a walk and a hit. He got Molina to swing and miss on the changeup, and he was able to stir the radar guns with a fastball that ranged from 87 to 90 mph.
"I didn't know what his velocity would be like having not pitched in a long time (but) 89-90 at the beginning of spring training, I'd say that's pretty good," Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday said. "I think they're just making sure the motion is there, trying to repeat their delivery. Arm strength usually builds as we get near the season."
Molina said he did see from Santana what he would seek from Wainwright, if he were catching him Friday. In his view, "It's command more than velocity" that matters in Wainwright's first start.
It's not always about box-score results.
"Getting a feel for the game," manager Mike Matheny said about that first start after injury. "You don't want to try and put too much on them. I know they have high expectations on themselves. Johnson, Santana and Waino is certainly going to have high expectations on himself. ... But make of it what it is, it's just another step."
RELIEVERS BEING TESTED
The Cardinals had a one-run lead headed into the seventh inning and Matheny had a plan to treat even the second game of spring like he might the 88th game of the regular season. Matheny planned to use Kyle McClellan to bridge the lead to the ninth and have Fernando Salas close the game for the save. Matheny said he'd like to not only get his relievers work early in spring, but also situations.
"We're going to have some guys designated for the tail end of games," Matheny said. "You want them to get their work in, but there is nothing wrong with getting them some situational pitching right from the start as well."
It was the situation that Matheny had in mind when he brought veteran reliever Scott Linebrink into the game in the fourth inning with the bases loaded. The fireman role is open, much like the setup role, and Linebrink has experience. But he allowed all three inherited runners to score when he gave up a bases-clearing triple to Andres Torres.
Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook was able to rely on his sinker when needed Tuesday as he pitched through two scoreless innings on 30 pitches. Westbrook walked two batters, fell behind in several counts and threw 15 balls, but he was able to recover with two groundouts and Molina catching a would-be base stealer.
"Obviously the walks are not something I want to continue to be a pattern," said Westbrook, who last season had his highest walk rate (3.9 per nine innings pitched) since 2003. "Even if I miss a little bit I can get back to being aggressive and kind of continue to work that sinker down in the zone and hopefully get the groundballs that I need."
After getting the Cardinals' first hit of spring Monday, slugger Matt Adams popped the team's first homer Tuesday. Adams, the reigning player of the year in the organization, launched a grand slam in the seventh inning Tuesday, giving the ball enough oomph to fight a crosswind. Through two games, Adams is two for four with four RBIs. ... Late in Tuesday's loss outfielder Oscar Taveras made his Grapefruit League debut, and in his first at-bat he grounded out to first base. Taveras, 19, is a gifted hitter and considered the top position prospect in the Cardinals' system.