Maine rises from obscurity to Game 1 start

10/4/2006 - New York Mets

NEW YORK -- Dozens of reporters trolled through the Mets' clubhouse Tuesday morning, circling every star who paused in front of his locker -- first catcher Paul Lo Duca, then Carlos Beltran, then Tom Glavine.

John Maine, on the other hand, dressed unencumbered, nodding at a couple of clubhouse attendants as they passed. Who could have known that within two hours, circumstances would push him front and center into the Mets' quest to follow up their incredible regular season with a championship?

Maine will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers, now that the Mets know Orlando Hernandez has a Grade 2 tear of his right calf muscle and is out indefinitely. And to think that last winter, Maine almost didn't make it with the Mets.

Maine, 25, was stalled in his progress with the Orioles, pitching 10 games for Baltimore last season and compiling a 6.30 ERA. He was not part of the conversation when the Orioles and Mets began discussing a trade of right-hander Kris Benson for reliever Jorge Julio. When word leaked out of the proposed deal, however, the Mets were criticized for not getting enough, and so they then asked for Maine in addition.

The right-hander began the year in Double-A, was summoned for one start in May, sent back down, and wasn't called up again until July 3. Maine does not throw especially hard -- 90-92 mph -- but there is something in his delivery that keeps hitters from seeing the ball, and the deception effectively adds to his velocity. Hitters often react as if he throws 94-95, with right-handed batters often peeling foul balls over the first-base dugout, or missing altogether. In his second start with the Mets on July 3, Maine whiffed seven Pirates in 4.2 innings. In 16 appearances this year, he has picked up 71 strikeouts in 90 innings, compiling a solid 3.60 ERA, with opponents hitting just .212.

Consistency sometimes eludes Maine, however. He allowed 13 runs in 22 innings in his last four starts, and often runs his pitch count up quickly. But the Mets will not need him to be dominant this postseason. Armed with a deep bullpen, they just need Maine to throw five good innings before turning the ball over to the relievers.

A greater question mark for the Mets, should the series play out and get extended, is who will be their fourth starter. It could be Darren Oliver, who has worked in long relief effectively for the Mets, but it may well turn out to be Oliver Perez, who had so many problems with Pittsburgh earlier this year that he was sent down to Triple-A, less than two years after he ranked among the most effective left-handers in the majors. Perez whiffed 239 batters in 199 innings for the Pirates in 2004.

But he had fallen so far that he was nearly a secondary piece in two deals in the waning minutes before the trade deadline. First, the Mets got him from the Pirates on July 31, along with Roberto Hernandez, for Xavier Nady, after the Mets had learned that reliever Duaner Sanchez had hurt his arm. The Mets then tried to work out a deal with the Padres for reliever Scott Linebrink. Perez would have been in that trade, had San Diego accepted the offer.

He stayed with the Mets, and now he and Maine might have multiple opportunities to be part of club folklore if the team wins the World Series -- or to become trivia answers from dark days in the Mets' history, the last days of the 2006 season, when their best starters kept straining calf muscles and tendons.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.