NEW YORK (AP)
After an extensive recovery from shoulder surgery, Santana is set to make his first major league start in 19 months Thursday when the New York Mets begin life without Jose Reyes by hosting a Braves team coming off a near-record collapse last September.
''I'm very happy,'' Santana said. ''It's finally a great feeling, to be back and be with these guys from the beginning. That's very important and huge for me.''
The two-time Cy Young Award winner won't have to face Chipper Jones - marking the first time since 1996 that the Braves will field an opening-day lineup without him. The switch-hitting slugger and longtime Mets nemesis, who recently announced his plans to retire after this season, misses out on a chance to take aim at Citi Field's shortened fences because of a left knee injury.
Jones, who turns 40 this month, is on the 15-day disabled list following arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The third baseman hopes to return in time for Atlanta's home opener April 13 against Milwaukee.
''Tommy deserves it,'' Jones said. ''We all know Huddy would be the No. 1 if he was healthy, but somebody's got to go out there and Tommy's throwing well this spring. It's on him to be the horse until Huddy gets back. Sometimes being thrust into that No. 1 starter's role makes a guy turn a corner, and we hope Tommy is ready to make that next jump towards being that starter.''
Other than promoting rookie Tyler Pastornicky to take over at shortstop, Atlanta mostly stood pat in the offseason after squandering a huge wild-card lead and missing the playoffs.
The Braves were up by 8 1/2 games through Sept. 5, but they went 9-18 down the stretch and were overtaken by St. Louis on the final day of the season. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series, while Atlanta went home. It would have been the biggest September meltdown in baseball history except that Boston blew a nine-game lead during the same month.
So the Braves want to wipe away that awful feeling as quickly as possible. Their first chance comes against Santana, who hasn't pitched in the big leagues since beating Atlanta 4-2 on Sept. 2, 2010. He had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate capsule in his left shoulder later that month.
''I think he's going to be just as good as he was before,'' Atlanta second baseman Dan Uggla said. ''He's as competitive as it gets. He knows how to pitch with whatever he's got working for him that day. He's going to be tough. We've got to capitalize on his mistakes. He doesn't make many of them, so it makes it that much more important.''
Santana will have less room to work with in a reconfigured Citi Field, which has yielded the fewest home runs in the majors since opening in 2009.
The Mets put up new, blue-and-orange fences in front of the old one, dubbed the Great Wall of Flushing. They shaved dimensions by up to 12 feet and lowered the height of the wall from as high as 16 feet to 8 feet all around.
The idea is to create a fair park for pitchers and hitters alike - and restore some power in David Wright and Jason Bay. But the Mets wrapped up spring training with games Tuesday and Wednesday against the Yankees, so they didn't get a chance to try out the modifications with an off-day workout before the opener.
''I'm looking forward to seeing the difference,'' right fielder Lucas Duda said.
Prior to the game, the Mets will honor former star Gary Carter with a ceremony and a moment of silence. Carter's family will take part in the tribute and throw out the first pitch. The Hall of Fame catcher, who helped lead the Mets to their most recent championship in 1986, died Feb. 16 at age 57.
While the Braves begin the season with a couple of key injuries, the Mets are mostly healthy for a change as they celebrate their 50th anniversary. Wright overcame a torn rib-cage muscle early in spring training, new center fielder and leadoff man Andres Torres shook off a calf injury and lefty specialist Tim Byrdak returned quickly from knee surgery.
Cleanup hitter Ike Davis shows no ill effects after being diagnosed with a likely case of valley fever, though the team has said he will get regular rest to avoid extreme fatigue. The first baseman missed most of 2011 with an ankle injury.
New York pared nearly $50 million off last year's payroll, one of baseball's biggest drops in a single offseason, but there was good news last month when ownership settled a lawsuit by the trustee seeking money for the victims of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme for up to $162 million.
The agreement finally provided some financial certainty for a club looking to build toward the future. Reyes, of course, won't be a part of it after the NL batting champion left for a $106 million, six-year deal with the division-rival Marlins in the offseason, leaving 22-year-old Ruben Tejada with big shoes to fill at shortstop.
Even after overhauling the back of a dreadful bullpen, the Mets are expected to finish last in the highly competitive NL East. Still, there's reason for optimism on opening day.
New York is 32-18 in season openers, the best winning percentage (.640) in baseball history - and that's after losing its first eight. Santana is 4-1 in five opening-day starts.
''We're a different team with him taking the mound every fifth day,'' Wright said. ''He's a true ace, a guy that just finds ways to win. Other people feed off that, so not only what he does on the mound but also what he means to this clubhouse emotionally is a big lift for us.''
Associated Press Writer George Henry in Atlanta and AP freelance writers Laurel Pfahler and Bill Whitehead in Port St. Lucie, Fla., contributed to this report.