Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Remember the Maine!

If only John Maine was Cuban. Or still pitching in Baltimore.

By Christopher Heun

He was a throw-in, along with Jorge Julio, in the deal for Kris Benson 18 months ago. But all John Maine has done since then is become one of the better pitchers in the National League.

Maine’s 2.91 ERA is fifth best in the Senior Circuit. Only two other NL pitchers have won more games. Those numbers would be even better if not for a poor start last Friday night, which Mets manager Willie Randolph attributed to too much rest over the All Star break.

I keep thinking this is all a mirage, that Maine can’t really be this good. As a frustrated Orioles fan, I wait for him to implode, but it hasn’t happened yet.

I thought the unraveling might have begun during his start last month in Los Angeles when he gave up three consecutive home runs, the final blow coming off the bat of the pitcher, no less.

But he’s kept rolling along. The New York Post proclaimed on its back page July 6: “Maine Reigns.”

Even dating back to last season, when Maine started Game 1 of the NL Division Series, he benefited from a base-running gaffe when two Dodgers were thrown out at the plate on the same play.

He followed that by out-pitching Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series, throwing 5 1/3 shutout innings.

It would sound like sour grapes to say he’s been getting lucky. (Or to point out that Mets general manager turned around and traded Julio for Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, thus getting two starting pitchers for Benson, who will not toss a single pitch this season for the Orioles because of torn rotator cuff).

But I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: Maine has been a recipient of good fortune this season. Only three other pitchers have held their opponents to a lower batting average. Someone more stats-wise than me explains the importance of this here.

Suffice it to say, “Pitchers with abnormally high or low BABIPs [batting average on balls in play] are good bets to see their performances regress to the mean.” In the case of Maine, that means an escalating ERA.

Whether or not Maine tanks the rest of the season or not, he has turned into a useful major league pitcher in Queens. The Orioles were wrong to trade him.

The Orioles front office deserves credit for recognizing the talents of Jeremy Guthrie, who’s stepped into the starting rotation this year and performed beyond expectations after the Indians gave up on him.

But the same guys in The Warehouse gave up on Maine. Maybe he’s just been lucky the past year and a half and it’s no big loss. I admit it: the Orioles fan in me wants to see Maine fail. Or have him back in Camden Yards and getting lucky.

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