Aaron Heilman (98 MVP) toil in pen for Mets

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Won’t complain, but would prefer spot in rotation

By Michael P. Geffner
Times Herald-Record
New York – Aaron Heilman has put on his best public face about getting snubbed at the last minute for the Mets’ starting rotation. He has played the good solider by saying he’ll do whatever the club wants and whatever’s best for the team.

But don’t for a moment think Heilman is not privately still bummed about this whole thing. He is sick to his stomach. Wants to throw something – and hard – almost daily. Feels a bit exasperated.

“It’s tough,” Heilman said before the season opener on Monday, sitting by his locker sipping slowly on a large cup of black coffee. “I’m definitely disappointed, and it’s going to take some time for me to adjust.

“Physically, mentally, everything’s different now.”

All winter long, Heilman had pushed himself to build up his arm strength and his mindset to start.

He considered nothing else.

In fact, in December, through his agent, Mark Rodgers, he reportedly sent a message to GM Omar Minaya that he’d rather be traded than return to the bullpen.

So when the Mets kept him, while trading away Kris Benson and Jae Seo, Heilman, 27, figured it meant he was a lock to be a starting pitcher.

That is, until manager Willie Randolph called him into a closed-door meeting the last Tuesday of spring training. Heilman knew it was bad news – and it was. He was told he would not be the No. 5 starter but a short reliever again, beaten out of the rotation spot by 25-year-old rookie Brian Bannister, who opened eyes with a 0.95 ERA in 19 innings this spring.

“It obviously wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but what could I do?” said Heilman, who was 3-0 with a 2.18 ERA in 46 relief appearances last season. “I don’t know what else I could’ve done to change anything. I did exactly what I wanted this spring. I thought I pitched well.” He did – a 1-0 record with a 1.59 ERA in 17 innings.

On opening day at Shea, Heilman made his first appearance. Coming in to relieve starter Tom Glavine, he pitched the seventh and eighth innings and gave up a run on five hits. “Jam shots and broken bats,” is the way he described them afterward.

Glavine, at the post-game news conference, went out of his way to give Heilman “all the credit in the world to accept the role the way he has, knowing that he’s disappointed that he’s not starting but knowing how much it helps us. To have a guy like him to bring in for two innings at that stage of the game is huge.”

Heilman knows that something drastic would have to happen for him to start this year.

Or maybe even any year here.

“There are no guarantees,” he said, not sounding very hopeful.

When Randolph was asked whether he saw Heilman’s career either as a starter or a reliever, he totally sidestepped the issue by saying flippantly: “I don’t have a crystal ball to see into the future.”

For now, Heilman isn’t ranting and raving.

Nor has he reiterated his start-me-or-trade-me request – and he isn’t likely to do so anytime soon.

For the time being, he’ll act like he’s okay with everything, smart enough to realize that a young, relatively unproven guy such as himself can’t make a stink and get away with it.

He’s not ready to talk his way off the team. Not yet, at least. Especially not when it seems like the Mets may do something big this year.

Still, when asked to come up with a positive about his sudden move to the bullpen, he responded by lifting the cup of coffee to his lips and just holding it there for several seconds, a far-away look in his eyes, not saying a word, frozen.

It was a painfully slow response.

It was as if he didn’t know what to say.

Or that he didn’t really have anything to say.

“The only thing I can think of,” he finally piped up, sucking down a sip, “is that you don’t usually have to wait five days after a bad outing to get back out there.”

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