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Stokes regains Manuel's confidence

Stokes regains Manuel's confidence

NEW YORK -- Down the stretch of the 2008 season, manager Jerry Manuel's hop out of the dugout and trot toward the mound became a harbinger of bad tidings, as the Mets' bullpen became synonymous with unreliability.

After the bullpen's September struggles were a big reason the Mets finished one game out of the playoffs for the second straight season, general manager Omar Minaya made it his primary focus in the offseason. With Billy Wagner on the shelf following Tommy John surgery, Minaya signed Francisco Rodriguez to be his closer. Minaya traded Aaron Heilman and Joe Smith in part of a deal for Seattle's J.J. Putz and Sean Green, while Scott Schoeneweis and Luis Ayala also departed.

When the dust settled, only three holdovers remained: Wagner, Pedro Feliciano and Brian Stokes. And while Feliciano has once again excelled in his role as a left-handed specialist, Stokes has emerged as the Mets' most consistent reliever in 2009.

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Stokes filled that role for a time in 2008. After being called up for a spot start in early August, Stokes was moved to the bullpen. He allowed just two earned runs in his first 13 appearances -- a span of 18 1/3 innings.

But in the season's final three weeks, Stokes fell victim to the same virus that incapacitated the rest of the Mets' bullpen. In his final 10 games, his ERA was 6.75.

As a result of both his struggles down the stretch and the infusion of new relievers, Stokes had to win back Manuel's trust.

The reliever has done just that by allowing a lone earned run in 17 innings since the All-Star break -- good for an ERA of 0.53. After half a season of mopup work and middle relief, Stokes is working primarily as a setup man. Only one of his 19 appearances since the break has come before the seventh inning.

"I just want to go out there and get outs," Stokes said. "It's a little thing you try to build upon and stay consistent."

Consistency was Stokes' only issue earlier this season. Stokes has allowed an earned run in just six of his 52 appearances this season. Problem is, when one scores, it's usually followed by a few more. In three of those six outings, Stokes surrendered at least four earned runs.

Manuel attributed part of that to his inconsistent use of Stokes. The right-hander had five days off before he gave up five runs to the Red Sox in May and hadn't worked in eight days before allowing four runs to the Yankees in June.

"The key for us and Brian is regular work. We found that out early," Manuel said. "Now that we keep that, no more than three days, he's been extremely impressive."

When Stokes works with two or fewer days of rest, his ERA is 1.67.

Stokes said the key for him has been forgetting both his struggles and his successes.

"You have to play this game day to day," Stokes said. "Once this game ends and you leave the stadium that day, it's over with. You can't focus on it too much, and it's the same if you strike three guys out. You can't dwell on it too much and get too high or too low."

The 29-year-old's success this season may mean he doesn't need to earn back Manuel's trust come 2010.

"What we're looking at is a guy that we feel will be a definite piece. What piece we can't determine that at this point," Manuel said. "But he's a definite piece that's useful in any situation; whether it's the seventh, sixth or eighth, he's shown he can get big outs."

Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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