C.J. Nitkowski of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches in a spring...

C.J. Nitkowski of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches in a spring training game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. (March 12, 2006) Credit: Getty Images

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Immediately after Johan Santana finished in the bullpen Thursday, a mystery pitcher followed him to the mound, wearing a black cap, a black T-shirt and a red No. 94 on his gray baseball pants.

That man was C.J. Nitkowski, the Suffern native and former St. John's pitcher who, after a five-year playing stint in Japan and Korea, is trying to make a comeback in the majors. Nitkowski, who turns 39 Friday and hasn't pitched in the major leagues since 2005, has transformed himself into a sidearming lefthander, and he believes the drop-down arm action could be his return ticket to The Show.

"Hopefully it gives me an opportunity to extend my career," said Nitkowski, who pitched for eight teams in his 10-year major league career, including the Mets (2001) and Yankees (2004). "Realistically, I knew after not playing in the States since 2006 and wanting to come back, I knew I was going to have to do something different. I was kind of hitting a wall even when I was here."

It was only a year ago that the Mets resurrected Jason Isringhausen's career with a spring training tryout, and Sandy Alderson offered a "we'll see" when asked about the possibility of signing Nitkowski.

Nitkowski said he worked out for a group of scouts in Florida but that this was his only visit to a team's complex, and the Mets would be his preferred launch pad for a comeback.

"It would be Option A for me," Nitkowski said. "I've gone through and done my homework and I've looked at teams. Having a good familiarity with Dan [Warthen], this would be my first choice."

If that happens, Warthen would not be the only pitching coach deserving of credit. Nitkowski said Rick Peterson, the former Mets pitching coach and now the Orioles' minor-league pitching coordinator, helped him perfect the sidearming delivery, one he modeled after Pedro Feliciano.

"You never want to pattern yourself after one guy," Nitkowski said, "but the guy that I followed most closely was Pedro Feliciano. Watched what he did, studied his tape, how he got righties and lefties out. That's the role I was going for."

The Mets already have one lefthanded lock for the bullpen in Tim Byrdak, but they could use another. Nitkowski's new look, along with his experience, could help. He pitched in the Dominican Republic this winter and says he would be up to speed with the rest of the pitchers in camp.

"I just figured: train, get it right," Nitkowski said. "You're going to get one shot at it, so make sure you're ready."


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