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01/26/10 2:04 PM EST

Johan's return to mound goes smoothly

Ace throws 24 pitches in bullpen session at Mets minicamp

NEW YORK -- On Monday, Johan Santana arrived at Mets minicamp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and said he felt "pretty good." On Tuesday, Santana threw off a mound for the first time since surgery to remove bone chips from his left elbow and said he felt "very good."

Quite the upgrade.

Under the watchful eyes of a traveling party that included Mets manager Jerry Manuel and pitching coach Dan Warthen, Santana threw 24 pitches Tuesday morning at the team's Spring Training complex, coming away reporting no pain or irregularities.

"We had a chance to get on the mound today, and it went really well," Santana said in an interview with WFAN after the bullpen session. "Everything was there. Of course, we have to work our way up to build on the strength and everything, but being the first time, there was nothing in my elbow. I felt like the mechanics and everything were loose, so that's a good sign."

Santana, who went 13-9 with a 3.13 ERA last year, missed the final month of the season after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow on Sept. 1. His 25 starts were his fewest in any season since 2003, when he was a part-time reliever.

Santana told reporters on Tuesday that he will not pitch in a Grapefruit League game until the second week of March, and that he would like to work his way up to between 90 and 100 pitches by the end of Spring Training.

"I think everything should be fine," Santana told WFAN. "We'll stay on the program, and everything as planned is there."

In his session on Tuesday, Santana was able to extend his elbow fully -- something he had not been able to do while the bone chips floated around last summer, a skill critical to creating deception with his changeup. He even mixed a few of those signature changeups into his 24-pitch session without incident, according to The New York Post.

"We were just trying to make sure that my arm was fine and that there weren't any problems," Santana told WFAN. "For being the first time, it was really good."

The Mets could use a healthy Santana. With four years and $93 million remaining on the six-year, $137.5 million deal he signed prior to the 2008 season, Santana will be expected once again to anchor a five-man rotation that features five distinct question marks.

No. 2 starter Mike Pelfrey took a step backward last season after a successful run toward the end of 2008. Third starter John Maine missed much of last season with ongoing right shoulder issues, following '08 surgery to shave a bone spur from the joint. No. 4 starter Oliver Perez, who also threw a bullpen session on Tuesday, has not pitched since an August operation to remove scar tissue from his right knee. And presumed fifth starter Jon Niese is actually sixth on the depth chart, Manuel told reporters on Tuesday, due to the club's desire to rehab him slowly from surgery to repair a complete hamstring tear.

With Niese on the mend, Manuel said, Fernando Nieve will enter camp with the inside track to earn the fifth spot in the rotation.

And with so many question marks, Santana's recovery has become all the more critical.

Santana, who had thrown at least 219 innings in each of his previous five seasons, was limited to 166 2/3 of them in 2009. His 13 wins were also his fewest since becoming a full-time starter six years ago, though his nine losses -- many of them the products of defensive mishaps and poor run support -- were his second-most.

Santana said prior to undergoing surgery that he could have continued to pitch had the Mets been in contention, but that there was no reason for him to do so with the club effectively out of the race for most of the summer. There was reason to believe him. Eleven months earlier, Santana temporarily saved the Mets' sputtering playoff hopes by pitching a complete-game shutout on short rest on the second-to-last day of the 2008 season. Weeks later, the Mets revealed that he had done so with a torn meniscus in his left knee.

The Mets, who finished last season in fourth place -- 23 games behind the Phillies -- played significant stretches of the schedule without Santana, Maine, Perez, Niese, shortstop Jose Reyes, center fielder Carlos Beltran and first baseman Carlos Delgado.

"The main key for us is to stay healthy, stay on the field," Santana told WFAN. "I believe we've got the right guys to do it, but we've got to stay healthy."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.