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Humber healthy and ready to compete

Fully recovered, Humber is ready to compete

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Philip Humber has not seen any statistical proof, but he has heard from others in the game that a pitcher coming off Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery performs best in his second year after the surgery. From his still-limited perspective, the Mets' right-hander can believe it.

"The further I get from surgery, the better I feel throwing," Humber said at the Mets camp here. "The ball comes out of my hand stronger, with more feel and control."

If that is the case, Humber, bidding for a spot in the Mets' rotation, could be dynamite in 2007. He had surgery on July 19, 2005. Returning to the Minors on June 22, 2006, he could do little wrong the rest of the season.

In Class A St. Lucie, he was 3-1 with a 2.37 ERA, striking out 36 batters in 38 innings. At Double-A Binghamton, he went 2-2 with a 2.88 ERA, with 36 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings.

As a reward for his rapid recovery, the Mets then promoted him to the parent club in September. No problem. In a 27-day taste of the Majors he showed no awe of the opposition, pitching two scoreless, hitless innings.

"It was a great experience," Humber, 24, said of his Major League cameo. "I'll never forget my first time out there. My parents were in the stands, my girlfriend. It felt pretty special."

He then paused, before adding, "But there is no guarantee I'll get back up there."

There is no guarantee, but Humber, the third overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, is pretty close to a lock to return. If he doesn't make the Mets' rotation out of Spring Training, chances are strong that he will be promoted at some stage of the season.

"He's got the physical tools," pitching coach Rick Peterson said. "Now it's a question of the emotional element, whether he'll allow himself to relax and execute pitches with his normal stuff and not try to overthrow."

Said Humber, "I'm going to keep a positive approach, and keep working hard, no matter what happens. I want to be ready when/if I get some chances."

Peterson tends to couple Humber and fellow right-hander Mike Pelfrey, because they're both young and on the cusp of the Majors. Peterson acknowledged that the Mets' array of pitching options makes their situation a little different than if they were a low-budget club with little pitching depth.

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Like the situation he had as the pitching coach with the A's. He said they promoted Barry Zito and Mark Mulder on limited Minor League credentials. Both turned into distinguished successes, but he said it wasn't like they had plenty of competition for the promotions.

Recovering from the Tommy John surgery, Humber added a convincing changeup to his repertoire just by experimenting on his own. At Rice, when he helped the Owls win a national championship in 2003, he threw a split-finger pitch that passed for a changeup, but he wasn't real happy with it.

"I threw it all last year," Humber said of the new changeup. "I think it was a big part of my success."

Two other things helped as well. First, after talking with renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews, Humber decided to wait five months before commencing his elbow rehab. Some pitchers start after four months, but Humber believes that extra month gave his elbow some valuable time to heal.

Secondly, he began working intensely with Robert Ellis, a Texan who had pitched in the Majors for four seasons. As a fellow Carthage, Texas, resident, Humber had known him since he was 9 years old. Ellis had endured several elbow surgeries, so he was able to offer some valuable advice.

Ellis, now working as a Mets Minor League coach, suggested Humber begin by simply throwing a basketball, not a baseball.

"I was getting back in the habit of how to make a ball spin," Humber said. "It trained my arm without a lot of stress on it. I'm sure that helped a lot. Some guys train with a baseball right away, and that can set you back."

In Humber, the Mets have a candidate for any All-Brain team that somebody might want to assemble, after he survived the academic rigors of Rice University. It's a private school with about 2,700 students that annually turns down several applicants with perfect SAT scores, Humber said.

"I know I'm constantly thinking about being better," he said when asked how his intelligence might transfer to the pitching mound. "Sometimes that can be considered a fault, if you overdo it, but I think the more you know about what you do can only helps you get better. Our coaches at Rice were always getting us to think about playing on a higher level."

Now he's nearing that highest level, with a future that looks as bright as virtually any pitcher the Mets have.

Charlie Nobles is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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