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K-Rod looks sharp in exhibition debut

Mets pitcher Francisco Rodriguez throws in relief in

Mets pitcher Francisco Rodriguez throws in relief in the ninth inning of a spring training game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Mar. 15, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - As Francisco Rodriguez sat in the corner of the clubhouse Monday discussing his first outing with reporters, a sudden roar could be heard from above him. Moments later, a bunch of Mets players came filing in, clearly in a celebratory mode.

A perplexed Rodriguez stopped talking and started wondering. "What happened?" he asked.

A walk-off two-run home run by Angel Pagan that gave the Mets a 6-5 win over the Cardinals, that's all.

Spring training can present weird scenarios sometimes. The fact that many players leave the stadium and head for the golf course before the games are over tells you everything about the importance of the final score. It's meaningless.

What spring training is all about is each player getting ready for the regular season, and on this day the Mets took an important step forward. Their trusted closer, who had been sidelined with conjunctivitis since the beginning of camp, was back on the mound. And he was dominant.

Pitching the top of the ninth with the Mets trailing by a run, K-Rod needed only seven pitches to set the Cardinals down in order, striking out his final batter.

OK, so the hitters he faced - James Rapoport, Matt Pagnozzi and John Jay - are not exactly as feared as fellow Cardinals Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick. Understood. But the mere sight of Rodriguez mowing down hitters had to be a welcome sight for a team that can't escape injuries.

"Usually when you go out there the first time in spring, you don't have that feel for the ball," Rodriguez said. "But I feel like I'm in midseason form already because I have that feel."

Rodriguez believes he's still on schedule despite missing so much time in Florida because he played winter ball in Venezuela. He typically needs eight outings to be in top game shape by Opening Day, and with three weeks left of exhibition games, there should be enough time to get those outings in.

The biggest adjustment for Rodriguez this season is getting used to wearing prescription sunglasses on the mound, as he did from 2003 through 2007.

Rodriguez said he stopped wearing the shades in 2008 because he did not have his new ones by the start of the season, forcing him to go with his contacts. But because of his recent bout of conjunctivitis, his doctor has advised him to wear sunglasses instead of contacts for at least the next two months.

Wearing the sunglasses on the mound Monday was "weird," with Rodriguez saying he momentarily lost his catcher's target when he was in his windup. It didn't show, as all seven of his pitches were strikes. But he said it's going to take some getting used to, so he plans to wear his sunglasses around his house.

The Mets believe they have gotten used to Rodriguez's needs after a year together. In looking back at last season, manager Jerry Manuel said he thought Rodriguez lost some of his control and effectiveness in the second half because he did not have enough regular work.

That's a byproduct of a lack of save situations, which is typical for a 70-win team. But short of guaranteeing more save situations, Manuel at least vows to get Rodriguez in games more consistently than a year ago.

"He's a guy," Manuel said, "who likes to be on the mound on a regular basis."

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