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Santana set to return as Mets open against Braves

By Mike Fitzpatrick

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, April 4 2012 6:20 p.m. MDT

Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman hits a solo home run against the New York Mets in the sixth inning during a spring training baseball game in Kissimmee, Fla., Monday, April 2, 2012.

Paul Sancya, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Johan Santana and the Atlanta Braves have the same thing in mind heading into opening day. They'd both like to put last year behind them.

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.

Also on the mend for the Braves is ace Tim Hudson, who had offseason back surgery and is expected to return in May. In his absence, Tommy Hanson gets the start on opening day.

"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 8½ 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.

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