NEW YORK -- The pain behind his right shoulder is gone, replaced in some way by a sense of anticipation that is a relief of a different kind. John Maine, exiled from the big leagues for three months, may be pitching for the Mets next week. Mets manager Jerry Manuel said as much again Sunday, hours after Maine had returned to the home clubhouse at Citi Field, and one day after he had returned to game activity, albeit in a Class A game.

The Mets' rotation, bearing little resemblance to what it was in June, will need a sixth member Sunday when they play a doubleheader in Philadelphia. Maine may fill that need in the second game, Manuel said.

"If he's healthy," the manager said, "we need to give him a chance."

And Maine says he is healthy and able to pitch whenever asked.

He pitched for the Mets' Class A St. Lucie affiliate against the Palm Beach Cardinals in the Florida State League in his first rehabilitation appearance Saturday. The results were: four innings, two hits, no runs, one walk, six strikeouts and no problems, plus legitimate plans to return to the big leagues for the first time since June 6.

"The season is still going on," was the reason Maine cited when asked why he would opt to return now that the Mets' season has two dozen games remaining. His was a variation on the theme Carlos Beltran expressed last week when he explained his motivation for returning: "I'm a baseball player. Playing is what I do."

Beltran, assigned to the disabled list since June 22, is expected to return Tuesday night when the Mets begin a three-game series against the Marlins. He played nine innings as the center fielder for the Mets' Class A Brooklyn Cyclones team Saturday night, and he was expected to play another nine for the Cyclones on Sunday.

Manuel said Gary Sheffield is "pretty close to being out" for the remainder of the season because of issues with his back, and that the chance of Carlos Delgado returning is "very slim" because of his surgically repaired hip. Delgado, general manager Omar Minaya said, is to test his hip this week.

Neither Maine nor Beltran is likely to be fully healed when they return to the big leagues -- "I probably won't be 100 percent the rest of the year," Maine said Sunday -- but each has said his problems are greatly diminished in recent weeks.

Maine, who is to throw a bullpen session Tuesday, and the Mets' media relations department maintain the pitcher's problem has been shoulder weakness. But weeks ago, after Maine had been examined by noted sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews, people in the organization said Maine was likely to pitch with some degree of pain throughout the remainder of his career because of a pinched nerve. The characterization Maine gave several times Sunday was "weakness," said quite quickly. At one point, he called it a "muscular thing." Neither Manuel nor Minaya could say what they knew Maine's problem to be.

Beltran's malady is a bone bruise behind the right kneecap.

Neither player faces surgery as of now, but speculation of an eventual need for each to undergo surgery has developed during their respective periods of disability. Maine said whatever he had experienced before he was shut down for 2 1/2 weeks developed after he had thrown. Whatever pain he endured while throwing was "tolerable," he said. And he acknowledged that weeks of not throwing during the offseason are likely to be beneficial.

Maine also acknowledged that the shoulder that warranted surgery after last season hasn't recovered fully.