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Backup Blanco is the perfect catch for Mets

Mets catcher Henry Blanco suits up for practice

Mets catcher Henry Blanco suits up for practice during spring training at Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Feb. 21, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Johan Santana credits Henry Blanco with helping him win his first Cy Young Award in 2004 with the Twins.

Geovany Soto insists it was Blanco's guidance that made it possible for him to earn the 2008 Rookie of the Year award with the Cubs.

Now entrenched as the backup on the Mets, playing behind the newly signed Rod Barajas, there's only one thing left for the 38-year-old catcher, and that's to get something for himself.

"I just want a ring," Blanco said, "and I think I'm on the right team to go all the way to the World Series."

Santana made similar statements a few days earlier, and it's not unusual for the two to be on the same page. Both are from Venezuela, and when Omar Minaya wanted to sign Blanco during the offseason, the general manager asked Santana to make a recruiting call for him.

Minaya knew that Blanco would play only on a limited basis, maybe once or twice a week. But there was additional value in having him as a mentor for the pitching staff, as well as the young catching combo of Omir Santos and Josh Thole during spring training.

If Blanco could make Santana a better pitcher, as the two-time Cy Young winner says, maybe it is possible for him to squeeze some of the potential from the likes of Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine. Santana is especially fond of Blanco's strong personality and no-nonsense style, which should help the others focus on the mound.

"He encouraged me to believe in myself," Santana said. "I remember one time when he told me, 'Don't be afraid to throw the ball anywhere. I get paid to catch the ball. You get paid to throw it, so you better do what I tell you.' I was like, all right, let's go."

The signings of Blanco and Barajas also point to a shift in philosophy for the Mets, who needed a defensive upgrade from the days of Ramon Castro and Brian Schneider. Though it's true he's getting up there in age, Blanco ranks third among active catchers in throwing out would-be base-stealers in his career. He is at 40.5 percent, behind Ivan Rodriguez (42.1) and Yadier Molina (41.6).

With all that mileage on Blanco's shoulder, the Mets, wary of his physical condition, renegotiated his contract to make it a base salary of $775,000 with incentives that could push it to $1.5 million. But Blanco doesn't seem too concerned about any health issues. He played 36 games for the Bravos de Margarita in the Venezuelan Winter League and had no problem keeping pace with the younger catchers during extended drills Sunday.

As soon as they returned to the clubhouse, Blanco, whose locker is in the middle of catchers' row, immediately started up conversations with Thole on his left and Chris Coste on his right.

Blanco already has made fast friends in the clubhouse, which is what one might expect from a player whose ouster from another winter league team, the Lions, caused fans in Venezuela to protest and call for a boycott of the club's merchandise because of the dis of "Captain Spark."

Given their close relationship, Santana doesn't rule out the possibility that Blanco will serve as his personal catcher, much as he did for Greg Maddux in Atlanta for two seasons.

"I don't really know how things are going to go once the season starts," Santana said. "But I believe that he's going to be a big, big factor for the whole pitching staff - not just me but for everybody. The way he approaches the game, the way our pitching staff is, I think it's going to be a good mix."

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