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Martinez will return to Mets' rotation next week

With the NL East all but clinched, it's all about fine-tuning for the Mets now -- especially for their sidelined ace.

Pedro Martinez, out since Aug. 14 because of a strained calf, will start during the weekend series at Pittsburgh, possibly on Friday, manager Willie Randolph said Sunday.

Martinez felt good after a four-inning
simulated game Saturday, putting him on track to
return.

Martinez threw 75 pitches -- 45 in game conditions -- from the
Shea Stadium mound on a warm and humid morning in front of the
watchful eyes of Randolph and pitching coach Rick
Peterson.

Both the braintrust and the 34-year-old right-hander came away
pleased, impressed and relieved by the 30-minute workout session.

"First time out felt pretty good, better than I thought," said
Martinez.
"I just wanted to actually be normal and try to let everything go,
let a couple of fastballs go. And I did that. I was able to execute
everything."

Martinez (9-5) threw 15 pitches in the first inning, nine in
each of the next two, and 12 in his final frame. The only batter to
get a hit was rookie second baseman Anderson Hernandez, who singled
in the fourth.

"He looked good," Hernandez said. "Breaking ball very good.
Changeup, fastball, good."

Most of Martinez's pitches were strikes. He had four strikeouts
facing the lineup of Hernandez, rookie Lastings Milledge and
veteran outfielder Ricky Ledee.

"The way I'm feeling now,
without a doubt, I could probably do what I have to do to get ready
for the playoffs."
--Pedro Martinez

"The last two innings I wanted to make it look more like a
game," Martinez said. "The first two innings were cautious
innings. You just want to see what you have, how you feel, how
you're going to react. Then after that, you do what you have to do.

"I was trying to be fluid and do whatever I could. It's just
nice to see somebody with a bat in their hand and actually try to
make some pitches."

Martinez could get three starts before the Mets head into the
postseason. If healthy, he would be the top choice to open the
division series.

"I'm very optimistic," he said. "The way I'm feeling now,
without a doubt, I could probably do what I have to do to get ready
for the playoffs."

While team officials and fans breathed a collective sigh of
relief, Randolph was very matter of fact in his assessment. He
claimed he wasn't worried because he never doubted that Martinez
would be healthy in time for the postseason.

"The fact that the ball is coming out of his hand nicely, the
balls are breaking sharply, the velocity is decent, and he comes
away from it healthy and feeling good about himself," Randolph
said about what he was looking for. "I was happiest to see him get
through with no blemishes or glitches.

"The main thing to me is that he didn't complain one thing
about any part of his body that hurt."

Although not yet a playoff lock, the Mets reduced their magic
number for clinching their first NL East title since 1988 to four, despite their 9-1 loss to the Dodgers on Sunday when Florida beat Philadelphia.

The Mets' postseason hopes are that much better with Martinez
leading the pitching staff.

"It's a great day," Peterson said Saturday. "When he feels really good
he feels like he's married to the mound, and today was a major
engagement party."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.