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BY RICH CAMPBELL
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.--John Maine walked swiftly off the New York Mets' practice field at noon yesterday, determined to get a quick workout in before watching the Mets' spring training game against the Washington Nationals an hour later. As he strode past the horde of fans gathered around the field, the requests came flying.
"John, will you sign my glove?" shouted a woman.
"John! John!" a group of kids screamed as they extended baseballs and pens in his direction.
Yes, the same player who used to strike batters out while pitching for North Stafford High is now an established big leaguer. After completing his first full season in the majors last season--and a successful one, at that--Maine is now dealing with everything that comes along with his status: The autograph requests, the expectations and the pressure of the New York spotlight.
He's taking it all in stride, believing that the best is yet to come.
"I just go out there and compete, and I think a lot of people see that," Maine said. "I think that they like that and respect it."
Last season was Maine's fourth in the majors, but it was the first in which he had a secure place in the starting rotation. The stability did wonders for his physical and mental approach to the game.
In 191 innings, he went 15-10 with a 3.91 ERA, striking out 180 batters and walking only 75. He tied with two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine for the team lead in wins.
"He got more innings and more experience," said Nationals catcher Paul Lo Duca, who was the Mets' starting catcher the last two seasons. "When he was over in Baltimore, he was up and down, up and down. Being in a situation where you never really get your feet wet, always battling for a spot, it puts a little pressure on you. I think he finally got to settle in knowing he was going to pitch every fifth day regardless of what happened. It made his mind settled. He has always had the stuff, and he progressed from there."
Maine had an outstanding first half of the season and could legitimately claim he was snubbed from the National League all-star team. He went 10-4 with a 2.71 ERA before the all-star break.
His second half, however, was rockier. He went 5-6 with a 5.53 ERA in 15 starts, and the Mets eventually completed one of the biggest collapses in baseball history. New York led the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East standings by seven games with 18 days remaining, but Philadelphia won the division on the season's final day.
"I got away from doing some drills that I should have been doing," Maine said. "It was also a little bit of wear and tear. I've never really had the opportunity to throw every five days and get that many starts and that many innings. It was a learning process."
Maine rebounded in time for his biggest game of the season, a start against the Florida Marlins on the penultimate day of the season. With New York trailing Philadelphia by a game in the standings, he no-hit Florida for 7 innings and struck out 14 in a 13-0 victory.
"That's not the game that I sat and look back at during the winter," Maine said. "The games I look back at are the ones that I was winning in the fifth, sixth, seventh inning and made one bad pitch and I end up blowing it. The games I made mistakes mentally and could have done better are the games I look at to try to improve."
And that's where Maine is this spring, trying to build on his success. He spent last spring training focused on getting hitters out so he could make the team. Now, with his spot in the Mets' formidable starting rotation secure, he wants to refine his game.
In the process, he's also dealing with everything that comes with a more prominent role. He now has Glavine's old locker, located at the end of the row near all the established superstars, such as pitchers Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez.
He's also making some guest appearances in April on the PBS math mystery cartoon "Cyberchase."
Such are the demands of an established big leaguer. Meanwhile, his goals for the season are simple: Pitch 200 innings, complement Santana and Martinez and help get the Mets back to the playoffs.
"We've got two guys here in Martinez and Santana that take all the publicity, and rightfully so," Maine said. "I'm just the guy sitting at the end of the locker, and that's perfectly fine with me."
Rich Campbell: 540/735-1974