All spring, the Mets watched Johan Santana's every move.
Santana was the talk of camp. Coming off a lost season that saw him fail to return from left anterior shoulder capsule surgery in September 2010, Santana began throwing in February and routinely drew a crowd.
Players, coaches and reporters would gather near Santana as he threw at the team's spring training complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., searching for evidence that the two-time Cy Young award winner was back to his old ways.
But even when Santana began succeeding in exhibition games, concern existed that he would wilt under the demands of an increased pitch count a five-day schedule.
With so little precedent for pitchers recovering from his particular surgery, the odds of a full comeback seemed slim.
And yet here is Santana nearly two full months into the season, starting Friday against the Cardinals with a 2.75 ERA attached to his name, along with 60 strikeouts and 16 walks in 59 innings.
Santana has not only made it all the way back from his surgery, but has reached a level that even his most ardent supporters did not know if he would ever see again.
"I didn't know how everything was going to be," Santana said after his last outing, a four-hit shutout against the Padres. "I've been working and I'm still working. You never know. You always have to go out there and perform."
In a season that has seen the Mets' bullpen struggle, their lineup lose multiple key players to injury and their offense provide precious little punch, Santana has been the brightest surprise.
It is not as if no one expected him to come back and succeed. But for Santana to be healthy enough to pitch every five days, without incident, is more than even manager Terry Collins could have dreamed.
"We were talking in Spring Training about nobody has ever come back from that surgery and what a tough road he's got ahead," Collins said. "You put in all the work that he's put in, and I said, 'If anyone can come back from it, it's him.'"
Throughout the first month of the season, the Mets had enough off days penciled into their schedule that Santana was able to receive an extra day of rest before almost every one of his starts.
That was critical, considering the most significant challenge for pitchers coming off anterior shoulder capsule surgery is typically their recovery time between outings.
But with the Mets wrapping up a stretch of 20 games in 20 days on Wednesday, Santana has made his last three starts on regular rest. It didn't seem to affect him.
The left-hander posted a 2.45 ERA over that span, striking out 19 batters, walking four and averaging more than seven innings per start.
Collins said toward the end of that stretch that he is looking forward to giving Santana an extra day of rest, which the left-hander finally received on Thursday.
But in most matters, the Mets are treating their ace simply as another member of the rotation, not as someone coming off major shoulder surgery.
It's about the best the Mets could have hoped from a pitcher who entered this season with a 40-25 record and 2.85 ERA since coming to New York.
Santana's strikeout rate is at its highest since 2007. His ERA is lower than at any point since 2008, when he nearly won a third Cy Young award in his first season with the Mets.
"It is a great feeling for me just to put my uniform on and be part of my team," Santana said. "And now, being able to help, being able to go out there every five games, is definitely something I was waiting for."