PITTSBURGH - The removal of Rod Barajas from the catching equation Sunday paved the way for Josh Thole to be the starter for the remainder of this season and likely the next one.

Manager Jerry Manuel said Thole has progressed faster than anyone could have expected, and in doing so, has given the Mets faith that he can handle the catching duties full-time in the foreseeable future.

"We feel that way," Manuel said. "We feel that Josh has evolved and matured into becoming a guy that can handle the pitching staff, so we feel pretty good about that."

Look for Thole to be the starter in 2011, with Henry Blanco likely to return as the backup. Blanco was behind the plate for Johan Santana in yesterday's 2-1 loss to the Pirates. He'll see spot duty against some lefthanders as Thole will get the bulk of the playing time.

"That game experience is what takes you to the next level," Manuel said. "The more you play, the better you become. You can practice and practice, but you got to get back there."

Thole works daily to improve on his throwing - perhaps the weakest part of his game - and he's not looking too far ahead despite yesterday's turn of events.

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"It's a one-year-at-a-time thing," Thole said. "It wold be nice to get through this year, stay healthy and get this team on a positive note. Hopefully, I can come into spring training with a chance to win a job."


Extra bases

Chris Carter got two starts in the No. 4 spot during the weekend series before being used as a pinch hitter Sunday, when he flied out in the ninth inning. Manuel plans to return him to the starting lineup this week with the Mets facing all righthanders against the Marlins . . . Upcoming probables for the Marlins series: R.A. Dickey vs. Josh Johnson Tuesday, followed by Mike Pelfrey vs. Alex Sanabia and Jonathon Niese vs. Anibal Sanchez.