The Mets' Maine man

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The phone rang after 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night: Jan. 20, to be exact.

"This had better be good," pitcher John Maine, soon to be of the New York Mets, thought. A few seconds later, he smiled. It was.

Traded by the Baltimore Orioles with reliever Jorge Julio for right-hander Kris Benson, the 24-year-old Maine recalls being "happy" when he learned who his new employer would be.

Sure, he'd be leaving behind a few good friends in the Baltimore organization, but after going 2-4 with a 6.80 ERA in 11 Major League games (nine starts) for the Orioles, maybe a change of scenery was the best thing.

"I wasn't disappointed at all," Maine said. "The biggest thing was losing my friends, some of the guys I played with, but it's a great organization to be a part of."

A 24-year-old pitcher from Fredericksburg, Va., Maine was Baltimore's sixth-round pick in the June 2002 draft. Rising through the Orioles' system and heralded as one of their top pitching prospects, Maine said he was able to remain grounded even in the face of hype and attention - he was a mainstay on Baseball America's prospect rankings and was watched closely during his four professional seasons.

"It doesn't mean much," Maine said. "It's just what a group of people have to say about you. But to me it's good, because you work hard during the offseason, so I guess it is good to see people say, 'This guy deserves it a little bit.'"

Pitching at Triple-A Ottawa - as he did for 55 games over the last two seasons - and pitching in the Major Leagues are two completely different animals. A tall, lanky hurler who said he works off of his fastball, Maine said he noticed that difference right away during his big league debut.

Making a start against the Minnesota Twins on July 23, 2004, Maine retired the side in order in the first inning, but allowed four runs, seven hits and three walks in just 3-2/3 innings, taking a 7-3 defeat. He was sent back to Ottawa after the game, realizing life as a rookie pitcher is a lot different than in the International League.

"My whole thing is setting up people with the fastball, and working off that," Maine said. "If I don't locate with my fastball, it's going to be a tough day for me. It shows when I start walking guys and getting behind guys. That's when I get hurt."

Maine made it back up to the Majors last year with Baltimore, going 2-3 with a 6.30 ERA in 10 games (eight starts). Thankful for the opportunity - and his first career victories over the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays - Maine said he hopes to make it to Shea Stadium at some point this season, testing his mettle against National League clubs.

"I pitched against some very good teams," Maine said. "You learn a lot from it. You learn how to pitch and how to handle yourself out there. The Orioles gave me that opportunity and hopefully they loosened me up for pitching in the big leagues."

No matter what the role. Raised as a starter, Maine is open to the idea of pitching in relief, as he did on two occasions for the Orioles last year. He may not have the mindset of a seventh-inning setup guy, but Maine believes he could fill a role for the Mets as a long reliever if need be.

"Whatever I can do best and however I can stay there the longest," Maine said. "I'd like to start, but who knows? Maybe I can be a guy who goes out there and throws three or four innings in long relief. I don't know. Whatever can keep me there."

The journey starts here in St. Lucie, with Maine trying to catch the eyes of someone in the Mets' hierarchy. GM Omar Minaya has already brought his name up in casual conversation, mentioning that there was more to the Benson trade than just yet-to-be-seen reliever Jorge Julio.

Julio has done plenty in the big leagues, but Maine has a little Major League history as well. He hopes it shows.

"I got a good taste," Maine said. "I learned the whole big league thing, but I've still got a whole lot more learning to do."


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