Off-day won't be quiet for Mets

Off-day won't be quiet for Mets

VIERA, Fla. -- In the terminology of baseball, Tuesday is an off-day -- no Mets game. In the case of the Mets, it is also the off-day, the only day in 33 days of spring games with no game scheduled. In neither case should the off-day be mistaken for a day off. That is an altogether different phenomenon. In this business, the day off is an endangered species.

On this Mets off-day, Orlando Hernandez will work on his restructured delivery and Mike Pelfrey will work on the command of his pitches in a simulated morning game. Duaner Sanchez will do whatever work he thinks will prepare him to pitch regularly, and Joe Smith won't work. Indeed, Smith probably won't set foot in the clubhouse. He pitched Monday, so he doesn't even need to throw. So he'll have the whole day free to do whatever he wants and what he doesn't want to do at all -- worry.

All right, maybe it's not worry. Maybe it is merely thinking that will occupy the mind of the Mets' sub-sidearm slinger; that and the Don Juan book Aaron Heilman recommended and provided. But chances are when Smith is shaving, showering or shampooing Tuesday, he also be doing the math and asking the questions that consume every perimeter player and pitcher in the final two weeks of every camp. How does 13 fit into 12? How do eight pitchers fit into a bullpen built for seven?

Reduced to the most fundamental -- and urgent -- terms, the question is: "How do I make this team?"

One day after Selection Sunday, Smith is the foremost squirmer among the Mets pitchers, the equivalent of the 65th team. His chance to be on the Opening Day roster for the second straight year is, of course, dependent on his own performance -- mixed results, so far -- and, to some degree, Sanchez's readiness.

If Sanchez, who still lacks arm strength, can recover quickly enough to pitch three of four times a week -- he isn't there yet -- Smith's chances are reduced. If Sanchez needs work in extended Spring Training or with a Minor League team to restore his stamina, velocity and resilience, Smith's chances improve.

That said, Smith will be as interested as anyone in how Sanchez's arm responds to his latest work -- one inning and 23 pitches Monday -- and how the staff responds to Sanchez's tentative plan.

"If everything is OK [Tuesday]," Sanchez said, "I'm going to ask them if I can pitch Wednesday. I want to know how my arm will react."

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Sanchez had gone four days without pitching before Monday.

Manager Willie Randolph said there was no way to tell at this point whether Sanchez can regain all he needs in the two weeks before Opening Day. Others are certain Sanchez will need additional time. Sanchez can't know, but he can hope.

"I know [pitching] back-to-back days is what I have to get to," he said.

Whether Smith's one-inning appearance in the Mets' 7-3 victory against the Nationals on Monday significantly enhanced or diminished his chances is difficult to say. He faced five batters, threw 10 pitches and allowed an earned, but tainted run. He hit one batter, allowed two hits -- one that might have been handled by Fernando Tatis at third base -- and elicited a double play.

He drew raves from Randy Niemann, the club's pitching coordinator.

"What you're doing is really working," Niemann told Smith, referring to Smith's slightly revised delivery and more aggressive approach.

"They want to get swings in the first three pitches," Smith said. Throwing merely 10 pitches to five batters was more -- or less -- than the staff had suggested.

"I know it's working. I think I'm doing better," Smith said.

Bounces haven't been particularly fortuitous for Smith this spring. But he has been mostly effective against right-handed hitters. And they are likely to be the primary part of his diet in the big leagues.

The staff had him change his mechanics somewhat, so now he stands straighter before he begins his delivery to make his release point and his velocity more consistent and restore life to his pitches.

Smith is comfortable with the change but not with the uncertainty. He clings to his memories of last March, April and May and his quick ascent to the big leagues. He tries to purge his memories of what followed. When he threw a 1-2-3 inning last week, he made a rediscovery.

"Pitching can be fun," he said.

People around the team have suggested his on-mound body language -- hitters can read it -- needs improvement and that he concern himself less with left-handed hitters. He's not likely to face that many, anyway.

"A shot of confidence wouldn't hurt him," a teammate said. "His stuff can be deadly. But he needs to trust it. No right-handed hitter looks forward to seeing that."

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