Thursday, October 12, 2006

NEW YORK — John Maine admits he “got some butterflies” when he took the mound at Shea Stadium last week for Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

Imagine what the 25-year-old right-hander will be feeling tonight when he starts Game 2 of the NL Championship Series, with 55,000 New York Mets fans screaming at the top of their lungs.

“It gets crazier and crazier the farther you go, I’m sure,” Maine said. “But I kind of know what to expect [now].”

Mets fans believe they know what to expect from Maine now, too, after watching the Fredericksburg, Va., native consistently pitch well this season. In 16 appearances (15 starts), he went 6-5 with an impressive 3.50 ERA, helping guide New York to the NL East title.

Not bad for a guy who was acquired as a throw-in from last winter’s Kris Benson-for-Jorge Julio trade with the Baltimore Orioles.

The Mets are plenty happy they got Maine in the deal, because he’s proved far more valuable than Julio, who was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks for outfielder Shawn Green during the season.

“Every time he takes a ball since he’s been here, he’s proven a lot to me, really,” New York manager Willie Randolph said. “John has always had pretty good stuff. I remember watching him a little bit when he was with Baltimore, and he’s just proven to me and the staff that he wants this opportunity and he’s going to take advantage of it. The more he pitches, the more you like what you see.”

Randolph and the Mets liked what they saw from Maine in his first career postseason start last week. Thrown into the fire as New York’s Game 1 starter after veteran Orlando Hernandez suffered a calf injury, he held the Dodgers to one run through 41/3 innings and paved the way for a Mets win.

Maine, who was 2-4 with a 6.60 ERA in 11 appearances with the Orioles from 2004 to ‘05, attributes his success to New York’s coaching staff.

“I’ve learned the game more in these three or four months here than I learned in four years with Baltimore,” he said. “That’s just because you get put in these situations and you’ve got great coaches behind you and you’ve got great instructors, too. They help you, they teach you the game. They teach you the right things, the way to do it and the way it should be done, and that’s helped me out a lot.”

Carpenter gets the call

Maine will face a tough challenge in Game 2. St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa named Chris Carpenter his starter, bumping the ace right-hander up from Game 3 because of Wednesday night’s rainout.

La Russa had been reluctant to give the nod to the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner because he would have been going on short rest. But the rainout pushed the series back a day, allowing Carpenter to pitch on his normal schedule.

“It’s as simple as: He’s our best pitcher, and that’s his fifth day,” La Russa said. “Seems to make sense that if there’s a game on a day that he’s used to pitching, whatever the reason is, you pitch him.”

With Carpenter bumped up, Jeff Suppan will now start Game 3 tomorrow, with Anthony Reyes pitching Game 4. Carpenter would be available to come back for Game 6, if necessary.

“Especially at this time of the year, you’ve got to be ready for change,” Carpenter said. “You’ve got to be ready for anything. My preparation is the same every time. … I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great time.”

Earlier start

Tonight’s game will start at 8:05 p.m., with Game 3 of the ALCS bumped up to 4:30 p.m. because of the threat of snow in Detroit. That means three straight ALCS games will be played in the late afternoon. The only potential early NLCS game would be Game 6, and that’s only if the other series goes to seven games.

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