This is #3a of 5 Key Mets Players for the 2009 season.
Analyze the evolution of John Maine, and the 2008 season seems rather out of place.
During Maine's first two seasons with the Mets, he left us wanting, and perhaps expecting, more.
In 2006, Maine, then an unknown Rookie thrown into a trade, burst out of nowhere to run off a 26-inning scoreless streak and capped off his season with two solid outings in three Postseason starts. No, he wasn't eye-popping good. No, he didn't blow you out with his stuff. But he proved himself a cool, collected character of the highest order, stepping up and performing well in spots when it was needed the most. That last outing, in particular, showed his fortitude, as he worked out of a big jam in the 1st, and kept the Cardinals off the board until the Mets were able to scrape out enough runs to win the game and extend their season. If he was still a question mark, he was one with a lot of upside.
It was at this time that I named him the #1 Key Mets Player for the 2007 season. The Mets believed that he was a prime candidate to build on his success.
They, and I, were right, for the most part. Maine emerged as the Mets best starter throughout the 2007 season. He started off incredibly strong, even putting away Pitcher of the Month honors in April. By the All-Star Break, he was a solid 10-4 with a 2.71 ERA, perhaps the Mets most reliable starter most of the time. His second half, however, was uneven. While the Mets struggled around him, Maine seemed to unravel with a number of losses and no-decisions, games where he was either getting hit hard, or throwing too many pitches early in the game and becoming spent by the latter innings. He mixed in some good performances, but he wasn't quite as sharp as he was in the 1st half. But with the Mets teetering on the brink of the abyss, with two games left in the season, Maine took the mound against the Florida Marlins and delivered his signature game, a masterful 13-strikeout performance and a no-hitter for 7.2 innings. Again, with their backs against the wall, the Mets handed Maine the ball, and Maine delivered with a performance equal to the magnitude of the day.
Turned out, that would be our last memory of Maine for the 2007 season. But overall, you couldn't look at his numbers and say he wasn't a success. You don't scoff at 15-10, 3.91 and 180Ks in 191 IP in someone's first full season in the Major Leagues. It was safe, you would figure, to assume that Maine would at the very least match his '07 numbers in 2008. After all, even when Maine was at his worst, he still looked like he belonged. And he was probably just hitting the wall a little bit, or at least that was how we tried to justify it.
So a funny thing happened in 2008: Maine regressed. Which was something that none of us really expected. You didn't really notice it at first. He had a lousy first outing in Atlanta, but that was OK, it was raining and the game was delayed, etc. He followed that up with several decent outings, and all seemed to be on track. All the numbers seemed to be right in line, at least if you were looking at the box score. But he wasn't really going much past the 6th or 7th inning, except for one outing in LA when he worked into the 9th. But by Mid-May, he was 5-2 with a 2.81 ERA. That was just fine, and just good enough for me to give him a ridiculous nickname, which was actually coined by Shirts vs. Blouses, but that's neither here nor there.
Then, it all started to go downhill. Beginning with an outing in Atlanta on May 20th, where Maine got torched for 4 runs and 8 hits in 4 innings, things clearly didn't look right. Maine seemed to be getting through games, but just barely. He was throwing strikes, but too many strikes, and too many strikes that were just kinda hittable. He wasn't putting hitters away, he was nibbling and getting into too many deep counts. Jason at Faith and Fear said it best: Maine had "Leiteritis." Maine was getting two strikes on hitters and not putting them away, wasting away pitches and wasting his ability to go deep into games. Sometimes, he was just barely getting through 6 innings. Sometimes, he was getting outright pounded. He left a start in Philadelphia with a problem in his non-pitching shoulder. Whatever it was, it wasn't what we had expected. Then, finally, we found out the problem: A bone spur in his shoulder was affecting his start and stop points in his pitching motion. It wasn't doing any damage, but it was causing him quite a bit of pain, and perhaps forcing him to make an ever-so-slight change in his move to the plate. Whatever it was, Maine's season was over on August 23rd, after he got lit up for 8 runs by the Astros.
Though he would need an operation on the spur, Maine held off. Perhaps, he felt, he would be able to come back and help the team down the stretch. His Manager, however, felt otherwise. Maine was last seen warming up in the 10th inning of a desperate last-week game against the Cubs, a game that would deteriorate before he had a chance to appear. And so, though he was counted on to be the same presence he was in 2007, John Maine was saddled with a rather forgettable 2008, a 10-8 record, 1 4.18 ERA, 122 strikeouts, 122 hits and 67 walks in 140 innings. To evidence his struggles, Maine averaged 4.17 pitches per batter, a figure that led the National League. Not up to our standards, and not up to his standards by any stretch.
So, that brings us to 2009. Maine had his operation shortly after the season ended, and now stands primed to return to his 2007 form. Pitching without pain, Maine has been working with Dan Warthen on using his curveball, a pitch that Rick Peterson made him drop two years ago. It's one thing to say that the Mets need Maine to go out and be the kind of pitcher he was in 2007, and another for him to go out and actually do it. If it was indeed the bone spur that led Maine to such a string of ineffectiveness, then this probably isn't much of an issue. But, if Maine simply doesn't have the oomph to put away a hitter, that's something else entirely. Maine isn't necessarily wild, though he can go through fits and starts of walking guys. But if he's wasting a lot of strikes that just get fouled off, it means he's not going as deep into games as he needs to, which means more tax on the bullpen, which can lead to a domino effect. Though the bullpen is vastly improved from last season, the starting pitching still needs to do its job, and keep the Mets in the game. It starts with John Maine being able to recapture his success from 2007. Maine will be handed the #3 spot in the rotation (3 or 4 is really just a matter of semantics at this point. I know that Perez will start the 3rd game and Maine the 4th), and his expectations, I'm sure, have been clearly defined. He knows it, and we know it. He's tantalized us quite a bit, but he's never quite put it all together. Things always seem to finish for him just a few steps short.
Perhaps this will be his time.