Mets' Maine man

Jeff Passan

NEW YORK – On the hazy Queens nights when his teammates pulled out of the players' parking lot in cars that cost more than his signing bonus, John Maine would tromp out of Shea Stadium, across the Grand Central Parkway and into the Ramada Inn he called home. Though not exactly a Spartan lifestyle, it wasn't one befitting of a starting pitcher for the New York Mets, either, and it certainly wasn't one that suited the man who saved the Mets' season Wednesday night.

"I'm not there anymore. I upgraded," Maine said, declining to divulge the location of his new digs, perhaps out of fear that the entire borough would descend on the hotel to personally thank him for throwing 5 1/3 shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals and forcing a Game 7 of the National League Championship Series following a 4-2 Mets victory here Wednesday night.

Instead, Maine said he would head home, unwind on his bed and finish the crossword puzzle that lay on the ground by his locker half completed. He began it in the hours leading up to the biggest start of his career, and had any of the Mets doubted the confidence of the rookie, they would have needed only to look at the squares filled with ink and not pencil.

October fosters invincibility in those who seemingly have no business carrying themselves in such a manner. It made Hank Gowdy a savior for the Miracle Braves in 1914 and Al Weis a household name for the Miracle Mets in 1969. It put Buddy Biancalana on Letterman, gave Mark Lemke a future and keeps Yankees fans yearning for Scott Brosius. And now it seems to have deigned John Maine – a throw-in, essentially, in the Kris Benson trade this offseason – a worthy successor.

"It's not a performance you're going to look at 20 years from now and think of it as Don Larsen," said Mets starter Tom Glavine, whose 290 regular-season victories are 282 more than Maine. "But in Mets annals, it'll be a game that will hopefully be looked at as one of the bigger games. He went out there and did exactly what we needed him to do. For a guy in his position and his stage of his career, it's a huge thing he did."

Maine silenced a Cardinals lineup that had slapped around Glavine in Game 5 and headed to Shea with a 3-2 series advantage and silenced everyone who thought sending him against reigning Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter was like bringing a water pistol to a gun fight. And from the end of the first inning, when he induced Scott Rolen into a bases-loaded flyout, Maine enlivened the crowd of 56,334 that watched him get stronger with every inning.

In the first, Maine bounced his seventh pitch, allowed singles to Scott Spiezio and Albert Pujols, then walked Juan Encarnacion. As grumbles emanated, Maine thought back to what his catcher, Paul Lo Duca, had said in a visit to the mound.

"He gave me a little speech," Maine said. "It was what I needed. It's secret, so no one is going to know except us two."

That much invective, huh?

"Not R-rated," Maine said.

"The old college ‘Go get ‘em,' " Lo Duca said.

Get 'em Maine did. He cruised through the second inning, worked out of two walks in the third by striking out Encarnacion, shook off another walk in the fourth, finished the fifth by striking out Pujols on a slider and left with one on and one out in the sixth, his straggler retired on a Rolen double-play ball, his final line.

"Johnny, to me, is not scared," Lo Duca said. "He wants to be out there, and I just wanted to let him know that [we], as a team, want him out there. We feel, and I told him, 'Just do your job, and we're going to win this ballgame for you.' I think we saw the maturation of a kid that's going to be a good pitcher, and you'll see him for a long time. He grew a lot tonight, and this is a step forward for his career."

Until this season, Maine was stagnating in the Baltimore Orioles organization. He spent most of 2005 with Triple-A Ottawa and didn't distinguish himself in eight starts with the Orioles. Baltimore included him in the deal that sent deposed reliever Jorge Julio to the Mets, and he started the year at Triple-A again, 25 years old, glass ceiling in sight.

This was becoming old hat for Maine. A sixth-round draft pick out of UNC-Charlotte in 2002, he had cruised through the lower levels of the minor leagues. Finally called up in May, he made one start, then went on the disabled list with an injured middle finger. The Mets sent him back to Triple-A in June and recalled him July 4, and from then on he was one of their best starters, going 6-5 with a 3.60 earned-run average and limiting hitters to a .212 batting average.

Still, Maine figured only in the back end of the Mets' postseason plans. Then Pedro Martinez got hurt. Maybe he'd crack the rotation. Then Orlando Hernandez got hurt. He was starting Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"It's a huge journey for him," Glavine said. "It's a huge journey for us. But, you know, it's been somewhat the epitome of our year. We've had a lot of guys in here who in spring training you wouldn't have imagined them being a piece to this team. That's why we've been able to do what we've done and overcome a lot of injuries and why we're in a position to play Game 7 of the LCS."

It's because of Maine, who David Wright offered to upgrade to an even nicer hotel, and because of Jose Reyes, whose leadoff home run against Carpenter staked the Mets the early advantage they so dearly wanted, and because of Lo Duca, whose two-run single in the eighth inning gave the Mets necessary insurance runs, with Billy Wagner nearly going Chernobyl again.

Of all the protagonists, Maine took center stage on Wednesday. To his left sat Lo Duca, who couldn't say enough, and to his right Reyes, who grinned his Cheshire Cat grin even more than usual, and there was Maine, itching to get out of the lights and back to the latest books in his locker, by Michael Crichton and Dean Koontz, and the "Lost" DVD set that a full baseball season necessitates.

There he sat, John Maine, minted hero.

"In baseball," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said, "there's no script."

Especially not in October.