JUPITER, Fla. - It's the eternal question in spring training. When is the right time to begin paying attention to a pitcher's starts during the Grapefruit League? Is there a critical point where practice reflects future performance?

Faced with that question, Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen smiled and said, "Whenever they do well."

Warthen was kidding around to some degree. But it's been difficult for the Mets to get a read on their rotation, and there are only 10 days left before the April 5 opener at Citi Field.

John Maine, perhaps the most puzzling member of the staff, provided what Jerry Manuel called a "very, very serviceable" outing Thursday in a 2-1 loss to the Cardinals. It was an interesting choice of words because Maine "served" up two home runs, to Brendan Ryan in the first inning and to Albert Pujols in the fourth.

Ryan's was a no-doubter that crashed off a building's patio deck beyond the leftfield wall. Pujols doesn't hit many cheapies, but he caught a break from a stiff wind that carried his fly ball out of the park. Overall, Maine allowed those two runs and only one other hit - a roller down the third-base line - during his 88-pitch, five-inning performance.

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"I'd have to say he was very decent for us," Manuel said.

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In typical fashion, Maine was not exactly doing somersaults of joy in the clubhouse afterward, possibly because he was nursing a migraine and holding his head between questions. Or that was simply Maine being Maine.

Asked to gauge his day, Maine's first response was, "It's done with."

That's one way to look at it. But it might be nice for the Mets to leave Florida with a few wow-type performances from their rotation. That hasn't happened. Maine, who says his shoulder is fine, lowered his ERA to 7.94 after four games. Oliver Perez actually has the lowest ERA of the starters (5.87) but has allowed 18 hits in 151/3 innings.

Even the two-time Cy Young winner, Johan Santana, is skating along with a 6.75 ERA, and Mike Pelfrey, who has shown noticeable improvement, is at 7.36. These ERAs are inflated by what amount to glorified side sessions early on, but there really haven't been any confidence-boosting outings to cling to - and Jon Niese seems to be winning the No. 5 job by default.

With so much riding on the middle three starters - Pelfrey, Perez and Maine - the Mets are taking a leap of faith. That's not to say all three won't succeed when the games begin to count. It's just hard to find a specific reason why at this point.

"Like you guys say, it's the 'What Ifs?', and I think there is a little 'what if?' to it," Maine said. "And I think right now it's a matter of getting me and Ollie out here every five days. You know what you're getting from Santana and Pelfrey's pretty consistent, too. So it's just a matter of me and Perez out there. We've shown in the past that when all four of us are out there together, that we've done a pretty good job."

Maine and Perez have 15-win seasons on their resumes. But that was back in 2007, and the two have been chasing that number ever since. The Mets keep hoping for a repeat of that year - only to be disappointed.

In Maine's case, however, the primary concern this spring has been the health of his right shoulder. As long as it remains sturdy, Maine believes the results will follow. Warthen was pleased with the "tilt" on Maine's slider Thursday and Maine was content to pitch without discomfort, something he didn't do the past two years.

"I've got no setbacks, I've got no complications," Maine said. "I'm out there every five days and that's what I want."