Sanchez aiming to play pivotal role

Sanchez set to play pivotal role for Mets

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Pedro Martinez had promise as his daily companion then. Grueling and extended as his workouts were last summer, he always had hope by his side as he sweated and strained. Martinez could hold to the doctor's prognosis and go about the post-surgery rehabilitation of his right shoulder with his objective almost within reach. He could glimpse the horizon and see himself on a big league mound in September.

Mets teammate Duaner Sanchez, had neither the vision nor the companion. His summer months weren't longer or more physically challenging than his teammates'; they were merely more difficult. He, too, was rehabbing his right shoulder, but also his outlook, and dealing with a sense of guilt. Martinez had the carrot, Sanchez had only the stick. And the mound was well beyond the horizon for him.

His summer was, at the least, unpleasant, tedious, disappointing and unrewarding.

"No," Sanchez said, smiling. "It was worse than that ... I knew pretty early there wasn't much chance I'd get back. So I couldn't have a goal."

Instead, his thoughts had to catapult beyond the winter -- a second winter without pitching -- to the final days of this month, when he expects to be an element in the Mets' bullpen and in their blueprint for success.

Other players, not many, are likely to fill roles of greater impact during the Mets' 2008 season. But at this point, Sanchez, the 28-year-old setup reliever, and Carlos Delgado, the 35-year-old first baseman, appear to be the most pivotal players on the Mets' roster; those whose career paths no longer are so well defined and whose performance projections can go from almost one extreme to the other.

After an uneven season, Delgado can make the batting order whole again or create a hole in the middle. And Sanchez, after a seasons of convalescence, can add to the uncertainty that shrouded the bullpen late last summer or make bullpen a force as it was in 2006 before his shoulder -- and his career -- snapped out of place.

Sanchez's eyes widen when he envisions the latter scenario -- him pitching late in games and into late October. He has found the missing carrot, and more importantly, his shoulder no longer is an issue. He says he could pitch now and throw with maximum effort, if only a game were scheduled.

He isn't so presumptuous to say that his absence last summer was a critical element in the Mets' collapse. He won't even concede that his swing-and-miss stuff might have averted one late-inning loss for a team that finished one game from first place. But his name -- preceded by conditional phrasing -- has been heard frequently of late as the Mets have looked forward.

"If we get Duaner back to where he was," manager Willie Randolph said last week, "we'll have one more big weapon in the 'pen."

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And general manager Omar Minaya said, "We're feeling really good about Duaner because he's feeling so good about himself. He can be a difference-maker."

Randolph no longer views Sanchez as he did a year ago, when the reliever reported to camp at 230 pounds -- he is 205 pounds now -- and unmindful of the manager's demand for promptness. Randolph has moved past the unpleasant episode of last March when he sent the rehabbing reliever to his room for tardiness and -- to a lesser degree -- for his physical condition. Sanchez was sentenced to three days of exile, fined, made to meet with the brass and ordered to apologize to his colleagues.

"I had to get more serious than before and be more responsible," Sanchez said Tuesday after a workout at the Minor League complex. He has arrived before many of his fellow pitchers. "I wasn't giving it my best last year. Willie was right to be mad."

Sanchez said upon his return to camp March 11 that a lesson had been learned. And even if it hadn't at that point, it has turned out that he had another 11 months to study. Eleven days after his return, he felt a pop and sharp pain in the front of his right shoulder. Examination in Manhattan days later detected a hairline fracture of a small bone, the coracoid, an injury that might have occurred eight months earlier in the same taxi accident in which Sanchez suffered a shoulder separation. Surgery was required.

"I've had a lot of time to think," Sanchez said Tuesday. "Last summer, all I could do was watch. I kept thinking, 'That should be me on TV. I have what it takes. Why waste it?' Wasting the year wasn't right. I feel I let everybody down -- my teammates, the manager, the coaches. Now I'm in the best shape of my life. I haven't looked like this since I was 19. Everybody can see it. I feel great. I'm ready to do whatever they want me to do."

He probably is ahead of every pitcher in camp and those who will report Thursday, the reporting day for pitchers and catchers. He twice has faced batters, pushed his pitch count to 50 and thrown "I don't know how many bullpens."

Sanchez spent months working with Jason Craig, the club's athletic development coordinator, nicknamed Nitro, who can be a demanding sort, and Randy Niemann, the rehabilitation pitching coordinator.

"Nemo did a lot for my confidence, and I needed a guy like Nitro," Sanchez said.

Now he needs to pitch, to re-acclimate himself to game situations. He probably could do the starting pitchers' workout. But he wants none of that.

"I never wanted to be a starter," he said, "because I don't want to wait four days to pitch."

If Sanchez pitches in the Mets' first exhibition game, Feb. 27, he will have waited 578 days. And that's about how long last summer seemed.

"You don't appreciate what you have until you don't have it," are the words that repeatedly scrolled through Sanchez's mind last summer and that still make occasional return visits to his conscience. So he as much as anyone who will assemble here in the next week, Sanchez wants these days to pass.

"I can't wait to face some hitters in a game," he said.

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