NEW YORK -- The Mets had hoped Johan Santana would use his stint on the disabled list as a cure-all, a meditative rest to heal his ankle and soothe his conscience. In that respect, they went 1-for-2.
Santana returned to the mound intact Saturday but was knocked around in a 9-3 loss to Atlanta. The southpaw's evening lasted just four outs -- tied for the shortest start of his distinguished career -- and he gave up eight hits and eight earned runs in the loss.
"It's not easy," said Santana. "It was a long night for me. Just sitting here and not being able to be out there performing and helping, it's tough. But at least I'm back. I'm just going to make my adjustments and work the next couple days and hopefully I'll be ready for my next time out there."
That's the hope for everyone around Santana, but there has to be some appropriate caution mixed in. Santana, who missed all of last season while recovering from a shoulder injury, has seen his ERA increase by nearly two runs (from 2.76 to 4.58) in the span of his last four starts.
Still, in the immediate aftermath, the Mets were glad that Santana is back and healthy.
"I'd say it was rust. That's probably the best fastball I've seen him have since early in the season," said manager Terry Collins. "As I told him when I took him out, no disrespect to the Braves because they've a very good club, but when they hit it, they hit it where nobody was standing.
"It was just a night where it was tough for him because he was throwing strikes and using his pitches, but he just wasn't throwing them where he wanted to. He said his command was off, so we'll move forward. At least he feels good. He said he feels OK, and that's a bright side if there is one."
Santana (6-8) has allowed at least six earned runs in each of his last four outings, and he hasn't earned a victory since throwing eight shutout innings in a 5-0 win over the Dodgers on June 30. Perhaps coincidentally, the Mets have gone 11-24 since Santana's last win.
Collins was asked Saturday night if the Mets will consider shutting Santana down early to rest his surgically repaired shoulder for 2013, and he said that's a situation that bears watching. New York could go to a six-man rotation, Collins said, should Santana need extra time between starts.
But the pitcher didn't want any special treatment Saturday, and he didn't have any special explanations for why his start had gone awry. Sometimes, he said, these things happen.
"I felt good," said Santana. "It's just that over three weeks, not facing any hitters at this level [and] trying to command all of your pitches wasn't my best. I think that as I continue, I'll make some progress and improve my command because I think I left some pitches up in the strike zone. I was pitching against a good team, and when you make mistakes like that, that's what going to happen."
The Braves (66-47) didn't hit him hard, but they hit him with alarming frequency. Santana gave up singles to the first two batters he faced before restoring order with a pair of strikeouts. That relief was short-lived, though, and Freddie Freeman put Atlanta on the board with a two-run double.
Santana walked the first batter he faced in the second, then he gave up singles to five of the next six batters. Atlanta starter Kris Medlen singled through the right side to drive in a run, and Collins came to get Santana after run-scoring hits from Jason Heyward and Chipper Jones.
"He had trouble with his changeup tonight early," said Jones. "We got into some counts and got some pitches in the middle of the plate to hit. We bled a few in, but it was not a typical Johan [start]."
At this point, though, there may be no such thing as a typical Santana start. Collins said before the game that the lefty has already exceeded expectations for the season by coming back from his shoulder injury, and the manager said that Santana has made adjustments from the pitcher he used to be.
"This guy, when he was winning Cy Youngs, it was because he had plus stuff with great command," said Collins, recalling the southpaw at the peak of his ability. "Even though he doesn't throw 95 [mph] anymore, command is going to be what gets him through it. You look at the games where he's pitched well: Lots of swings and misses, lots of called strikes. Right now, they're not swinging and missing it. There has got to be a reason, and there's a couple things we're going to talk about."
Catcher Josh Thole said he's not concerned that Santana might be tipping his pitches, and he said that the two had gone about their pregame preparation the way they had for every other start. The difference, said Thole, is that Santana was leaving the ball over the plate more than usual.
And if the game hung in a tenuous balance before Santana left, it was soon reduced to a blowout. Santana allowed six earned runs while on the mound, but he left two runners on base and both scored when Freeman -- the first batter faced by Jeremy Hefner -- homered to center field.
The Mets (54-60) used three hits in the second to score their first run, but Medlen (3-1) managed to escape that rally with a double play. The right-hander settled down, using the bountiful cushion his offense had granted him and steadily keeping the Mets off the scoreboard.
Santana is 3-6 with a 7.98 ERA in nine starts since throwing a career-high 134 pitches in successful pursuit of a no-hitter against the Cardinals, and that's one of the reasons Collins thought the veteran could use a rest. Now that he's back, the Mets will explore every option to help him improve.
"As we look back at April, May and June, his stuff wasn't even as crisp as it was today. It was just down in the zone," said Collins of Santana's command. "He got ahead in the count, and today he was behind in some counts, although they did jump on some first-pitch fastballs. The other teams adjusted to him a little bit, too. The one thing that I always thought that was impressive about him was that you had to adjust to him. Well, maybe they are. We may need to take a look at another approach."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.