Mets in good shape if 'pen is as well

Mets in good shape if 'pen is as well

ANAHEIM -- Rummaging through some belongings in his locker prior to Wednesday's game against the Angels, Billy Wagner pulled out a bright pink backpack and, beaming -- almost cackling -- handed it to Joe Smith.

It was the brightest object in the room, emblazoned top to bottom with Hello Kitty logos. Smith's expression drooped as Wagner told him that from now until the end of the year, he would have to carry the backpack out to the bullpen with him before every game.

Smith sidled up to Duaner Sanchez, then to Pedro Feliciano.

"Why now?" Smith asked.

He didn't receive an answer.

It was a typical bout of rookie hazing, but Smith isn't a rookie anymore. He remained on last season's roster long enough to ditch that status, meaning teddy bears, tutus and pink backpacks should no longer constitute legitimate worries. But there was the backpack, hanging halfway out of Smith's locker on Wednesday and causing him a good deal of exasperation.

"You didn't think you'd get off that easy, did you?" Sanchez said.

It seems the Mets never got around to properly hazing Smith last summer, and he remains as the youngest player on the roster. Fair enough. But Smith, too, has played a significant role in this year's bullpen -- which makes his recent struggles all the more worrisome.

Entering Wednesday's play, Smith had allowed runs in each of his last three outings, inflating his ERA from 2.66 to 3.81. Then he pitched a spotless inning against the Angels to right himself -- one of four scoreless innings that the bullpen pitched as a whole.

If the Mets are to reverse their fortunes this season, they'll need to rely on a bullpen that still ranks 18th in the Majors with a 4.03 ERA. Smith is a large piece of that. Sanchez is another. And Wagner, who bought the pink backpack, is the most critical part of all.

He pitched a perfect inning in Wednesday night's 5-4 win over the Angels, as did Sanchez and as did Scott Schoeneweis.

That group will look for similar results on Friday, when the Mets open a weekend series against the Rockies in Denver. John Maine will pitch the opener opposite Aaron Cook, and considering Maine's inefficient pitch counts in recent games, the bullpen will be ready. And they can look to Wednesday night's victory as a model.

"It's a big win to take the series and kind of start moving in the right direction," Wagner said. "Everybody's kind of loosening up a little bit and relaxing."

Pitching matchup
NYM: RHP John Maine (6-5, 3.87 ERA)
Maine gave up a lot of long flyouts on Sunday -- one of which escaped the park -- in 6 1/3 innings against the Rangers. But despite allowing a season-high five earned runs, Maine griped only about his inability to induce key ground-ball outs. He'll head into Coors Field having already pitched there once this season, throwing six innings and surrendering four runs -- three earned -- on three hits in a loss on May 25.

COL: RHP Aaron Cook (10-3, 3.29 ERA)
Cook is the third pitcher in Rockies history to reach double figures in wins before the All-Star break; he needs one more win to tie Shawn Chacon's club record, set in 2003. Cook labored the second time through the order while beating the White Sox on the road on Sunday. But the Mets have seen him at his best. Cook threw the Rockies' only complete game of the year against them at Coors Field on May 25, holding them to one run on four hits in a 4-1 victory.

Tidbits
The Mets signed 20 picks from the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, including third-round selection Kirk Nieuwenhuis. ... Outfielder Chris Aguila cleared waivers, and he will report to Triple-A New Orleans. ... Claudio Vargas turns 30 on Thursday. ... Two Mets outfielders currently on the disabled list, Moises Alou and Ryan Church, hold a combined .417 lifetime average against Cook. The rest of the team holds a collective .231 mark.

Tickets
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On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• SNY

On radio
• WFAN 660, WADO 1280 (Español)

Up next
• Saturday: Mets (Pedro Martinez, 2-0, 5.31) at Rockies (Ubaldo Jimenez, 1-7, 4.85), 8:05 p.m. ET
• Sunday: Mets (Mike Pelfrey, 3-6, 4.62) at Rockies (Greg Reynolds, 2-4, 5.98), 3:05 p.m. ET
• Monday: Mariners (Felix Hernandez, 6-5, 2.87) at Mets (Johan Santana, 7-5, 3.04), 7:10 p.m. ET

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