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From throw-in to Maine man

PHOENIX – John Maine, watching Mariano Rivera finish a game in Texas from a lounge chair in the clubhouse here, moving to the players' lounge to shoot some cartoon bucks on a video screen, taking a pen to the day's crossword puzzle, being the National League pitcher of the month, charting the Arizona Diamondbacks hitters for Friday night's start against Randy Johnson, back in the lounge chair for the final minutes of Golden State Warriors over Dallas Mavericks.

You know, living the life of the big-league throw-in.

"What does throwing mean to me?" he asks.

No, throw-in.

He grins. He is 4-0 after five starts. His ERA is 1.35.

"I don't care," he says. "It doesn't matter. Nobody said they were stuck with me."

About 15 months ago, the New York Mets moved to reinforce their bullpen by acquiring Jorge Julio from the Baltimore Orioles at a cost of Kris Benson and his audacious wife. It was need for need, the Mets building a bullpen for October, the Orioles a starting rotation for some other day, everybody happy.

And the Orioles kicked in Maine, a 24-year-old right-hander who'd come through their organization capably and then gotten hit around in three September starts the season before. Maine evened the trade by promising organizational depth, the shim that balanced Julio's bullpen role with Benson's starting potential.

In Baltimore, Maine said, "People were kind of writing me off."

And that, ultimately, was beneficial, he said, because, "I don't think there was a way to improve myself there."

Benson won 11 games for the Orioles last season, tore his rotator cuff and will miss this season while recovering from surgery. Julio has been traded twice since, first to the Diamondbacks and then to the Florida Marlins. He is on the Marlins' disabled list with a strained right calf and a 19.06 ERA.

That leaves Maine, who showed up in Port St. Lucie last spring as the other guy in the Julio trade. He brought mechanics nobody really liked and an unreliable curveball, but promising resolve and a willingness to give himself over to pitching coach Rick Peterson.

"That's fine with me," Maine said. "Under the radar is all right with me."

On the Peterson plan, Maine reworked his delivery, eventually dumped the curveball ("It was worthless," Maine said), lived on a fastball that ran naturally to right-handed hitters' thumbs, and became adept at throwing strikes with the off-speed pitches he had left – the slider and changeup.

So, from the seeds of a 23-inning scoreless streak in the middle of last summer and three passable – if short – playoff starts, Maine's development has stood with Tom Glavine's reliability and Oliver Perez's rebirth as the reasons the Mets' starting rotation has not been the impediment it appeared it would be.

Tied with the Atlanta Braves atop the National League East, the Mets have the best ERA (3.00) in baseball. Their rotation – still without Pedro Martinez, for the moment without Orlando Hernandez, grooming Mike Pelfrey and now straining to fill the fifth spot – ranks fourth in ERA.

And Maine gets the ball again tonight, having won 11 of his last 13 decisions.

"He's probably made more improvement in this short of time than any pitcher I've ever had," Peterson said. "Something that we talk about around here, 'The privilege of a life is to be the best of who you are.' He's exercised that privilege every day."

As a result, Peterson said, "He really has gone through a metamorphosis. He really has evolved. Now, it's a matter of being consistent."

Just five days ago, leading the Washington Nationals, 1-0, at RFK Stadium, Maine allowed the first two batters to reach base in the seventh inning. He got an out on a bunt, then struck out the next two hitters – Chris Snelling and Robert Fick – swinging. The Mets won the game, 1-0.

"Those are the moments that build that kind of character," Peterson said. "Now he's settled in to the point you start to trust him late in games, because he's really stood up."

Those, and the fact that scouts really like the movement on Maine's fastball, in particular bearing in against right-handed hitters, almost like a harder, quicker two-seamer.

"He's got this explosive late life, so guys don't center him at all," one scout said. "And he really didn't throw quality strikes in the past. He's one of those guys where it came together and he looks like he's trusting that movement now. He paralyzes guys."

The son of a teacher, the brother of a construction worker he shares a house with in their native Virginia, the renter of an apartment in Queens because Manhattan is too expensive, Maine sees simplicity in what he does. It's the Peterson training, in part. But, it all seems to suit the man, the throw-in.

"I'm out there pitching, but I'm not Glavine," he said. "I'm not going to hit the corners like him. I'm not Pedro, throwing that curveball and change like he does. I had to find out how I pitch. I don't throw 95, 96, and I'm not going to be Glavine. It's a confidence thing. If I go out there and pitch, hopefully I'll find success.

"And I realized you don't have to make that nasty pitch to get people out. That's the way I pitch. I don't know if it's a good attitude or a bad one. What's the worst that can happen? You lose."