Zambrano leaves with injury

Zambrano leaves with right elbow injury

NEW YORK -- After playing 14 innings Friday night, the Mets needed a fresh arm in their bullpen, but they had no way to accommodate a 26th man on their 25-man roster. At the same time, though, a roster vacancy developed when the middle finger on the right hand of John Maine became so inflamed he had to be scratched from his Sunday start against the Braves and assigned to the disabled list.

And now it appears more than likely that Victor Zambrano will be lost for an extended period because of an elbow problem that forced him from his start against the Braves on Saturday. At the very least, the Mets will need a pitcher to replace Zambrano on Friday in Milwaukee. Another problem.

But the solution to Problem 1 may be the solution to Problem 2 as well. So it could be worse.

There is no question that bad stuff is happening to the Mets -- even as they sit in first place -- but it seems to be happening at opportune times. That is the glass-half-full outlook the club took Saturday as it awaited a doctor's read of an MRI of Zambrano's right elbow.

"The good thing in all this," general manager Omar Minaya said, "is that we have people in place -- capable people. You don't want to be tested. But so far we've been lucky on our tests."

With the three starters (Maine, Zambrano and Brian Bannister) down, and two of them (Maine and Bannister) already disabled, the Mets could be in a starting-pitcher crisis. For now, though, it is a problem waiting to become a predicament.

Jose Lima will replace Maine on Sunday and, because of the off-day Monday, he will be on schedule to replace Zambrano on Friday against the Brewers as well. It could be better. It could be a lot worse. Sometimes bad things happen on good days.

Because the Mets are off the next two Mondays, a four-man rotation can suffice until May 21 -- except for one day. And Bannister and Maine could be available by then. Darren Oliver, summoned to relieve Zambrano on Saturday, probably won't be used as a starter.

The club announced neither its plans nor a diagnosis on Zambrano on Saturday. But the sense in the clubhouse following Mets' 6-5 victory against the Braves was that Zambrano was seriously injured when, after striking out Andruw Jones for the first out in the second inning, he ran from the mound to the dugout and toward the runway that leads to the clubhouse.

"He was crying when he came in," coach Sandy Alomar said. "The pain had to be extensive."

Others saw Zambrano holding his right arm straight down and rigid. "Like something was broken," a teammate said.

"I hope it was bone," Cliff Floyd said. "That'll heal quicker than something else in there."

He and others acknowledged that the name "Tommy John" had run through the clubhouse and their minds.

"You see a pitcher holding his elbow, and you think Tommy John [elbow reconstruction] surgery," a player said. "But we don't know. No one said anything to us."

There was no indication whether the pain Zambrano experienced was in the same area as or related to the strained flexor muscle he suffered shortly after he joined the Mets in 2004. He made only two appearances following his July 30 acquistion.

Nor was there an indication of what the problem might be. The Mets' official word was "discomfort."

"I hope that's all it is," pitching coach Rick Peterson said.

Zambrano had run directly from the mound to the dugout after Jones swung and missed a changeup, his 23rd pitch.

"The best changeup he threw," his catcher, Ramon Castro said. "I thought he hurt his hamstring again."

"I thought he lost track of the outs," Floyd said.

Manager Willie Randolph and trainer Ray Ramirez had spoken with Zambrano on the mound after his 21st pitch, one he had thrown awkwardly.

"He dropped down and his pitch went up," said Alomar who alerted the manager.

"We asked if he was OK," Randolph said. And after he began to return to the dugout, the manager reversed field and told Zambrano not to "be a hero."

Peterson said he had seen nothing out of the ordinary during Zambrano's bullpen warmup. But Alomar said Zambrano had told him he couldn't get loose. "That's not unusual for any pitcher," the coach said.

Oliver said Zambrano had told him of elbow pain during the week while the pitchers were shagging fly balls in the outfield. But Randolph said he spoke privately with Zambrano on Friday and that the pitcher never mentioned a problem.

Pedro Martinez said Zambrano felt pressured to pitch, but he cited no specific example of pressure other than to mention reports in the media or inferred pressure.

Zambrano's four-out start came hours after the Mets had assigned Maine to the DL and announced the plan to have Lima pitch Sunday, and shortly after Minaya said Bannister probably will need to pitch at least once in the Minor Leagues after he has rehabbed his strained right hamstring.

Maine had replaced Bannister in the rotation and started Tuesday against the Nationals even though he had felt a "pop" in the finger when he threw the final curve of his bullpen warmup.

"I didn't do anything but throw it," Maine said Saturday before leaving for a trip to Port St. Lucie, Fla., where he will rehab the finger. "I can't believe this. I've never missed a start in my life, not even in high school. Now this.

"I just felt it pop. And it was sore. I threw one curve in the game. It was terrible ... and it hurt."

He left, disappointed and with the finger wrapped and already taking anti-inflammation medication.

With Maine unavailable and the team in need of a reliever after the 14-inning game Friday, the Mets promoted reliever Bartolome Fortunato from their Triple-A Norfolk affiliate with the intention of sending him back Sunday to make room on the big-league roster for Lima. Now, it appears likely Fortunato will remain and Zambrano will be assigned to the disabled list. If the injury is as serious as the Mets fear, Zambrano could be assigned to the 60-day disabled list and removed from the 40-man roster to accommodate Lima.

Minaya said he probably wouldn't have recalled a reliever if Maine had been able to make his Sunday start.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.