Pedro: Ailing toe could keep him out of WBC

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Pedro Martinez acknowledged Saturday that his ailing toe might prevent him from pitching for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.

"It depends on my health and how comfortable I feel here and how quickly I can get on a mound," the New York Mets' ace said after the team's first spring training workout.

"Obviously, I'm a little bit behind, but I would love to represent my country and actually be part of it -- even if it's not in the first round -- and to try to be healthy enough to try to help my country win it."

In fact, the Mets' two best pitchers were unable to throw off a mound on the first day of camp: New closer Billy Wagner got queasy during drills and went home with a stomach virus. He said his kids were sick all week.

But it's Martinez's tender toe and custom Nike shoe that have created all the buzz in camp.

Nursing an injury that has hampered him since last season,
Martinez stayed inside doing cardiovascular work while the rest of
New York's pitchers and catchers went through the first day of
scheduled practice.

The three-time Cy Young Award winner came out just after noon to play catch and long toss in the outfield with manager Willie Randolph. As trainer Ray Ramirez, pitching coach Rick Peterson and Martinez's new wife looked on, the right-hander tried out a modified version of the special shoe that Nike designed to alleviate the persistent pain in his right big toe.

"It's improving. I'm feeling more comfortable," Martinez said.
"It's going to take a little time."

One of the spikes on the custom shoe was shaved down in attempt to make it more comfortable. Another option is to reposition the spike.

"I'm not quite as comfortable yet, but we're finding the right
track," Martinez said. "I'm trying to act normal, I'm just not on
the mound."

The 34-year-old Martinez played catch several times during the
week, but hasn't thrown off a mound since September -- and there is
no timetable for when he might do so. That remains up to him.

"I think he'll probably throw off the mound soon," Randolph
said. "Obviously, he's going to have to get off the mound
sometime. I just can't tell you exactly when."

The injury, which makes it painful for Martinez to bend his big
toe as he pushes off the pitching rubber with his right foot,
caused him to miss his final two scheduled starts last year with
the Mets on the brink of playoff elimination.

He said his toe first began bothering him just before the 2004
playoffs with Boston, and he received a cortisone shot. It flared
up again last June, and Martinez pitched through it for the rest of
the year.

Even with spring training underway, the Mets maintain they're
not concerned yet.

"When you look at where he is, we've got a nice cushion of
time," Peterson said, adding that he's "not the shoe coach."

"We all trust Pedro's judgment," he said.

The Mets also say they won't try to dissuade Martinez from
pitching in the WBC. The Dominican Republic plays its first game
March 7 against Venezuela in Kissimmee.

"If Pedro feels he wants to play, he has my blessing,"
Randolph said.

Martinez's health is crucial to a Mets team that expects to make the playoffs after adding Wagner, first baseman Carlos Delgado and catcher Paul Lo Duca this offseason. The starting rotation might be
New York's biggest question mark.

General manager Omar Minaya said his understanding at the end of last season was that surgery wasn't an option for Martinez. Simple rest was supposed to help his toe.

"It's not that he can't pitch with this," Minaya said. "Pedro
can pitch with this the way it is right now."

The real worry, of course, is that the pain in his toe could
make Martinez alter his delivery and possibly hurt his arm. Minaya
said major league teams are insured if players get seriously
injured in the WBC.

"For Pedro, for the New York Mets, he's going to make the right
decision," Minaya said. "I was hoping that by now he would be OK,
but that's not the case."

Martinez, who signed a $53 million, four-year contract with the
Mets in December 2004, went 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA last year. He
struck out 208 batters in 217 innings spanning 31 starts.

"We want to just take him slow, that's all. Pedro does a lot of
his work indoors anyway," Randolph said.

Three other members of the Mets' projected rotation, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel and Victor Zambrano, did throw about 40 pitches each off a mound Saturday.