Daniel Murphy may be ready for Mets' opener

Daniel Murphy celebrates after scoring a run in

Daniel Murphy celebrates after scoring a run in the fith inning during a game against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field. (Sept. 11, 2012) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- When Terry Collins was asked to choose the most challenging aspect of spring training, the Mets manager didn't hesitate: "Staying healthy right now."

Indeed, Collins has been a frequent visitor to the trainer's room this spring as the Mets have led the league in X-rays and cortisone shots.

But Wednesday, even as the Mets faced the prospect of being without Shaun Marcum in the starting rotation, they can at least ponder the thought of having the full infield intact for Opening Day.

Second baseman Daniel Murphy, who has been sidelined all spring with a strained right intercostal muscle, is slated to start at second base Thursday against the Nationals. It will be his Grapefruit League debut.

"It would be nice to get in a game where it's just that the pace is a little quicker," said Murphy, who injured his intercostal muscle in the earliest days of camp. "I need to get adjusted to that."

The Mets' willingness to play Murphy in a major-league game is another positive sign. If Murphy were limited to minor-league action, he could be placed on the disabled list retroactively, meaning he could be activated as early as April 7. But Collins said the Mets want Murphy to see big-league pitching to prepare for the season, even if he's at risk of remaining on the DL deeper into the season in case of a setback.

"I don't know if he will start the season," said Collins, who wants Murphy to play the three remaining spring games. "But one thing Sandy [Alderson] and I discussed and I discussed with Dan is the importance of understanding the speed of this game at this level. You cannot just recreate it in the minor leagues, in camp games especially."

Murphy had once been considered a long shot to begin the season. But after making swift progress the last several days, he could be standing at second base, not far from team captain David Wright, who remains in line to begin the season at third base.

Wright is scheduled to play in a minor-league game Thursday, putting him on track to be fully recovered from his own strained intercostal by Monday against the Padres. Collins hopes he plays in the Grapefruit League finale on Saturday against the Orioles.

Of course, the Mets have enjoyed few days free of injury complications, and Wednesday proved to be no exception. Marcum, 31, reported improvement one day after neck discomfort forced him to stop throwing his bullpen. He had already been sidelined since March 15 after complaining of an issue in his shoulder.

Collins said Marcum could pitch in a simulated game in Florida on Monday or Tuesday. When the Mets released their projected starting rotation, Marcum was slated to start on April 7, the first day the Mets will need a fifth starter.

"I've made starts on 75-pitch counts before and got through five innings so I'm not really concerned about the pitch counts," Marcum said. "It's more about making sure that everything's feeling good, make sure my neck's feeling good and then we'll worry about the pitch count when we get there."

Nevertheless, since he could be activated by his first regular-season start, Marcum could begin the season on the DL.

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