- Adam Rubin, ESPN Staff Writer
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After a feel-good Opening Day that included Darryl Strawberry throwing the ceremonial first pitch to '86 teammate Howard Johnson, David Wright homering on the second pitch he saw and ace Johan Santana dominating, the New York Mets' season resumed Wednesday.
You had to know reality was about to set in, too, even if a late comeback bid tempered the disappointment.
John Maine, who had a 7.88 Grapefruit League ERA for a pitching staff that is clearly vulnerable beyond Santana, gave the Flushing faithful no reason to discard its pessimism. And even Jenrry Mejia, the 20-year-old phenom who provides hope for better days to come, looked mortal despite lighting up the radar gun.
Not that manager Jerry Manuel had been sugarcoating the team's question marks. Before the season opener, as he had done throughout spring training, Manuel labeled the bullpen his biggest concern. And before Wednesday's 7-6, 10-inning loss to the Florida Marlins, Manuel acknowledged his rotation beyond Santana isn't much of a given, either.
"That's an honest assessment," Manuel said. "We have to be somewhat concerned. We had some setbacks and inconsistencies last year. We can't just assume that's going to be lights-out."
Maine did not have much life on his fastball, which hovered around 88 mph. He surrendered two of the three homers by the Marlins, to Jorge Cantu and Hanley Ramirez. Maine's pitch count climbed quickly -- an issue even in 2007, when Maine won 15 games.
"First-pitch strikes," Maine labeled his problem. "I couldn't get ahead of guys. I think I walked one, but I was pitching behind in the count the whole time, and that's what hurt me."
"Well, I think you have to throw that one out right now," Manuel said when asked about Maine's less-then-stellar velocity. "It's coming out of spring training. I've seen it better. It's there."
Regardless, Manuel conceded about the right-hander: "It was somewhat of a struggle for him. He left some balls up."
Maine tossed 26 pitches in the first inning, had thrown 69 after three and was pulled for pinch-hitter Angel Pagan after five innings with his pitch count at 92. The right-hander allowed four runs on eight hits and a walk while striking out three as his MLB-best home winning streak was snapped at six games.
The more deflating performance actually may have come from Mejia, although that's not a slight against the rookie. Mejia dazzled during spring training, with his fastball's movement being compared by Manuel to the cutting action on Yankees closer Mariano Rivera's signature offerings.
No matter Maine's performance, Mejia represented hope to the team's beaten-down observers.
He took the mound for the sixth inning with the Mets trailing, 4-1. Any euphoria lasted one pitch.
Mejia threw a 95 mph fastball to Cody Ross for a called strike at 8:44 p.m. The rookie's second major league pitch was lined by Ross to center field for a single. Marlins rookie Gaby Sanchez followed with a double over the head of right fielder Jeff Francoeur. In all, the first three position players to face Mejia crushed hits, although that string was interrupted by the rookie striking out opposing pitcher Ricky Nolasco with a 97 mph fastball.
None of this should suggest any less of Mejia's potential. Mejia, who was charged with one run, could come back next outing and dominate. Mejia suggested the Marlins may have benefited from seeing him all spring. He insisted the cutting movement on his fastball was there.
"Jerry Manuel said to me, 'That's good, because that's what I want. That's what I want -- for you to throw strikes,'" Mejia said. "I think they know about my fastball. I faced them a lot of times in Florida."
For a team that has a ton of question marks beyond Santana and its superstars, it's unfair to ask Mejia to be the bullpen's savior. In fact, it certainly would not be beyond the realm of possibility for the Mets at some point this season to return Mejia to Double-A Binghamton's rotation to continue getting seasoning for what projects as a career as a front-of-the-rotation starter.
For now, though, Mejia is part of the major league bullpen. And, despite a five-run rally over the final three innings by the Mets to force extra innings, he was part of a sobering night after the euphoria of Opening Day, even if Manuel chose to focus on the comeback bid.
"You have to look at the fight the team put up," Manuel said.
1dInterview by Buster Olney
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