NEW YORK -- Nearly an hour had passed since the undefeated Mets capped their first win of the season, a 1-0 blueprint over the Braves, yet few of their players had left the premises. Some milled about the clubhouse in street clothes, not particularly eager to depart. Johan Santana and Frank Francisco loitered in the concourse, playing with their children.
"You can't ask for anything better," said Francisco, the team's new closer. "It was the perfect situation to show some negative people out there that we can do it. I believe we're going to win a lot more games like that."
How the Mets did it was neither perfect nor beautiful, at least not in a classic sense. But had they drawn up a realistic plan for Thursday's Opening Day in advance, it might have looked suspiciously similar to what unfolded at Citi Field.
Santana, making his first appearance in more than 19 months, delivered five shutout innings. Francisco led a quartet of relievers in stringing together four more zeros. Third baseman David Wright, the face of the franchise, drove in the only run. And the Mets, hosting a division rival that fell a tick short of the playoffs last season, packaged it all into a one-run victory.
"It's one game," manager Terry Collins cautioned afterward, before allowing himself to revel. "It's one game, but it's very, very important to us."
Referencing Friday's off-day, Daniel Murphy added: "And we'll be 1-0 tomorrow, too."
Mostly, though, the Mets spent their postgame hours gushing about Santana. Rehabbing from anterior left shoulder capsule surgery for 19 months, Santana made his return to Citi Field after a cautiously optimistic spring. And he thrived. Proceeding on a strict pitch count, Santana set down a dozen straight Braves during one early juncture, before running into his only real trouble in the fifth.
What happened next defined his afternoon. Loading the bases on a double and two walks, including one to the pitcher, Santana ran a 3-1 count on Braves center fielder Michael Bourn. Then he buzzed the strike zone with a fastball at the knees, before inducing a groundout on his final pitch of the day.
"I've only been around this guy for a year," said Collins, who took over as manager two months after Santana's surgery. "But the stories I've heard in the past, he's lived up to every one of them. He's by far one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around, and that's why I said if anyone could come back from his injury, he could."
If there was any postgame prudence at Citi Field, it came from Santana himself, who noted that he is "still working to try to be what I used to be." That manifested itself in his five-inning limit, in the type of game that the Santana of old might have lasted seven or eight. And yet the Mets will be happy to accept five innings of that caliber on any given day this season.
"If he makes his scheduled starts and pitches like he did today, you've always got hope," injured Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "As long as you've got that horse at the front end, the other guys kind of feed off of it. If they feed off what he did today, the Mets can win ballgames."
Given the performance of their revamped relief corps, the Mets would tend to agree. After ranking 28th in bullpen ERA last season, the Mets upgraded over the winter with Francisco, Jon Rauch and Ramon Ramirez, who combined Thursday for 3 1/3 scoreless innings. The other two outs came via Tim Byrdak, who underwent left knee surgery less than four weeks ago.
Including Santana, five Mets pitchers held the Braves to four hits and three walks over nine innings, improving the franchise to a league-best 33-18 all time on Opening Day.
The only reason the outcome was in doubt for so long was because the Mets had nearly as much trouble scoring off Braves starter Tommy Hanson and Atlanta's own stout bullpen. It was not until Andres Torres -- who left with a calf injury later in the game -- drew a leadoff walk in the sixth that the Mets seriously threatened against Hanson, rallying when Murphy singled Torres over to third. The next batter, Wright, lined Hanson's first-pitch fastball into left field for the Mets' only run.
Consider it a fitting performance for Wright, who struggled through injuries and trade rumors last summer before becoming, with Jose Reyes in Miami, the clear leader of a team lacking in positive expectations.
"Nobody should be satisfied with making it to this level and just being average," Wright said. "I wanted to shoot for higher."
Had Santana heard those words when Wright spoke them, he likely would have nodded. After the left-hander escaped his bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning, but before the Mets scored in the sixth, Santana returned to the dugout and lobbied his manager for one more inning. He was at 84 pitches, nearing his maximum -- but for once, not thinking of surgery or rehab or anything like it.
Wanting nothing more than to compete, Santana told Collins he had one more inning left in his arm.
"I said, 'Yeah, I know,'" Collins recalled. "'But that's enough for today.'"