David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Like everything else with John Maine, his sudden departure from Friday's game with two outs in the fourth inning was difficult to explain. Even the Mets took nearly 45 minutes to come up with a reason for his exit, and when they did, that made it even more baffling.
The official diagnosis? Maine left after 63 pitches with "muscle spasms and pain in his left, non-throwing elbow."
Yes, for those unsure of what arm Maine uses to pitch, the Mets were happy to point that out for you. Which only begs the question: Who leaves a game because his glove arm is hurting?
As incredible as it sounds, this actually was the second time for Maine. Back in July 2008, Maine walked off the mound at Citizens Bank Park because of cramps in his left forearm. He made his next start but was never the same after that mysterious ailment. He had to be shut down July 28 for more than two weeks as he began to suffer from a bone spur behind his right shoulder that would require surgery after the season.
That set in motion a series of shoulder issues that were alternately described as fatigue, weakness and maybe a pinched nerve. So what exactly has been the problem with Maine since his 15-win season in 2007? No one seems to have any idea, and the Mets cannot afford that level of uncertainty from a pitcher who is supposed to be their No. 2 starter. Maine didn't even fight to stay in Friday's game.
"I understand because I'm coming off a shoulder thing, too," he said. "If you change anything, then something else can happen. I understand the situation completely."
It could get worse for Maine. Jerry Manuel said he noticed that Maine was having problems in the fourth inning, when his fastball dipped into the low 80s and the coaching staff thought he was throwing changeups.
"John was trying to compete," Manuel said. "He couldn't pull that left arm down, and you need everything you got to really get behind the baseball. That definitely affected his velocity. We told him we're not going to take a chance on you trying to finagle and maneuver just to get through this. We'll deal with this another day."
Meaning it could cost Maine his next turn in the rotation. Hisanori Takahashi was impressive in relief of Maine, striking out seven in three innings, and Manuel suggested he may need to be promoted in five days.
"It's a possibility," the manager said.
When asked if Maine will be OK for his next start, Manuel replied, "I'm not sure."
Regardless of the severity, this elbow injury gives the Mets a chance to rethink Maine's spot in the rotation. It's something they already were in the process of doing anyway, and now they can come up with a replacement as Maine straightens himself out in situations that don't count in the standings.
A potential sticking point for Takahashi: Promoting him would leave the rotation with four lefthanders. In that case, Fernando Nieve and maybe prospect Dillon Gee, who improved to 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA after Thursday's five-inning stint for Triple-A Buffalo, would get consideration.
The Mets have been short on patience with their other April issues, and Maine should be no different.
He entered Friday with a 10.38 ERA, mostly due to his April 13 start in Colorado, when the Rockies pounded him for eight runs in three innings. That prompted Maine to call for a closed-door meeting with Manuel to insist that his moody shoulder indeed was healthy, and he pledged better results.
That led to Maine scrapping everything he had concentrated on during the six weeks of spring training, studying video of his glory days and then trying to mimic those mechanics. Maine was so focused on fixing himself that he spent three consecutive days in the bullpen trying to get the feel for his fastball again.
Now he's trying to pitch without feeling pain in his left, non-throwing elbow. And Maine is not even sure how or why it comes and goes, but he insists it is not a chronic issue.
"I don't think it's that because I've been throwing a ball for 28 years," Maine said. "Let's see how it feels tomorrow."