On September 29th, 2007, New York Mets ace John Maine toed the rubber against the Florida Marlins trying to keep his team in the playoff hunt. New York was in the midst of a September collapse of epic proportions, having lost five games in a row and the seven-game NL East lead they held with 19 games remaining.
A game back to Philadelphia, they needed a win in the worst way. Then Philadelphia lost to Washington, creating an opportunity for the Mets to knot a 88-73 tie atop the division. Maine knew what was hanging in the balance. All he had to do was deliver as he had done many times before.
Going for his 15th win on the season, he benefited from an angry offense early and often. He had an 8-0 lead to work with by the fourth inning and made sure the sizable advantage would hold up. As it turned out, one run was enough. Maine was pitching better than he ever had.
All he ended up doing was flirting with the first no-hitter in Mets history. Paul Hoover ended that dream with a two-out single in the eighth. Maine was pulled. A standing ovation at Shea Stadium ensued. He had thrown 7 2/3 innings, allowed just that one hit, and struck out an incredible 14 Marlins.
“We weren’t going to lose today,” Maine said after the 13-0 victory.
“We needed a stopper and he was our guy,” added third baseman David Wright.
Ultimately, Maine’s performance wasn’t enough. New York went on to lose the division to the Phillies and miss the playoffs altogether, putting the finishing touches on the collapse–the gut-wrenching evaporation of such a comfortable lead.
Despite the embarrassment this implosion brought the franchise, his performance against Florida is still heralded as one of the clutches outings in team history. In the previous eight years no Met had struck out as many batters as he did on that day. He was on the top of his game, having won the final of 15 games that season. That more than four years ago. He hasn’t been the same since.
He pitched fairly well in 2008, winning 10 games and posting a 4.18 ERA, but battled shoulder problems towards the end and overall made only 25 starts. That was the beginning of a painful decline.
Specifically, the injury which shortened that season was diagnosed as fraying of the rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder. Pitching coach Mark Warthen thought differently. He said the rotator cuff was fine. What was creating the problem instead, he said, was a bone spur which grated on the back of Maine’s shoulder. His outlook wasn’t uplifting.
“I just don’t see the arm responding greatly,” Warthen told the New York Daily News.
The arm didn’t, wouldn’t the following season, and still hasn’t. He was last in the majors in 2010 and was far from the John Maine who befuddled Florida. In nine starts spanning just 39 2/3 innings, he walked an unsightly 25 and allowed 27 earned runs. Now, after struggling in the Colorado Rockies’ organization and pondering the possibility of retirement, the 30-year-old right-hander looks to complete his comeback and be relevant again. The Boston Red Sox gave him that chance. It is a minor-league deal that doesn’t even include an invitation to major-league Spring Training, but at least the opportunity to prove himself is there.
Eight years ago, the outlook was so promising. At the time, ESPN’s John Sickels issued a scouting report on Maine, who was then a prospect in the Baltimore Orioles system:
”He has a “loose” arm and doesn’t look overly vulnerable to injury. His biggest problem in college was erratic mechanics, which would hurt his command on occasion. But this has been much less of a problem in pro ball, and his command has been very sharp. His fastball runs in the 90-93 mph range, with excellent sinking and running action. He has made major improvements with his curveball and changeup, giving him a solid three-pitch arsenal. Maine can throw any of his pitches for strikes, and has overcome a previous habit of relying too much on his fastball. He is intelligent, emotionally mature, and has sound pitching instincts, understanding the necessity of changing speeds and keeping hitters off-balance. Although he doesn’t throw quite as hard as some of the elite prospects in the game, he’s proven he can dominate professional hitters.”
For Maine, most of Sickels observations and predictions eventually translated to the major league level, creating that 15-win 2007 season and notably leading to that magical performance against Florida. The one observation that didn’t end up ringing true, that he “doesn’t look overly vulnerable to injury”, forced Maine back to the minors, to try to work his way to the majors once again.
There is an outside chance that the long, trying road he has traveled might take him to Beantown, back to the big show. After what he’s been through, and considering how good he once was, hopefully it does.