JUPITER, Fla. - The Mets aren't going to make the same mistake they made last year with John Maine. That became crystal clear in the second inning of yesterday's game against the Marlins when pitching coach Dan Warthen came out to retrieve Maine after only two outs.
For the other members of the rotation, pitch counts are more general guidelines than hard and fast rules. But not for Maine, whose aggressive push to return a year ago at this time after minor shoulder surgery sabotaged him later in the season.
So when Maine reached 39 pitches - one short of his prescribed total - with his strikeout of Brett Carroll, he was finished. And this time there was no pouting. As eager as he is to put last season behind him - sound familiar? - he also realizes the need to be cautious.
"I'd like to finish the inning," Maine said, "but I did reach the count. I understand. I've got plenty of time to build it up and we'll go more next time."
For Maine, who made only 15 starts last year, the DL should stand for disabled limbo. There was a defined beginning to his shoulder issues, which bounced him from the rotation June 12, but his rehab stint in Port St. Lucie always seemed to be of undetermined length.
The Mets diagnosed him with everything from the ambiguous shoulder fatigue to a pinched nerve. Maine benefited most from working with physical therapist Chris Correnti, who figured out he simply needed to strengthen the muscles in that area.
When Maine did return Sept. 13, he did so with more velocity, and most importantly, without pain in the back of the shoulder. That's what he's striving for as he continues to work with Correnti, and the early results were positive. Maine allowed two hits and one run in 12/3 innings, with one walk and four strikeouts.
At his best, Maine can freeze hitters with fastballs, because his easy motion produces deceptively high velocity and good movement. Combined with an effective changeup, as he had yesterday, it kept the Marlins off balance. In the first, he struck out Jai Miller and Dan Uggla, each looking at fastballs pretty much down the middle of the plate.
"I finished last year fine and I'm starting this year fine," Maine said. "It's just a matter of keeping that for the next six months. Going out there and staying healthy."
It's what sticks in the back of his mind every time he takes the mound. Before the 2008 surgery to shave a bone growth in the back of his right shoulder, he never thought twice about the aches and pains associated with pitching every five days. Now every twinge prompts him to do a systems check on his shoulder.
Maine said he's had no more than the "general soreness" from getting into shape during spring training. That's a significant upgrade from "stabbing pain" that accompanied pitching last year before he landed on the DL.
The Mets would like to keep him that way, which is why Maine is conservatively positioned at the back end of the rotation, in the No. 4 spot. Heading into today's Grapefruit League debut for Johan Santana, Manuel has seen Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and Maine in that order. At this point, he's feeling mostly positive about the first time through the rotation.
"I think they're trying to do everything they can to prove that they can handle that role," Manuel said. "So each and every day that those guys throw strikes and compete is a big plus for us going forward because we know it hinges on that for us. We can't get into a depth situation early."