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07/26/07 5:45 PM ET

Smith optioned to Triple-A

Rookie reliever has struggled after fast start to season

NEW YORK -- An unbecoming 8-4 loss to the Pirates accelerated the Mets' clubhouse departures Thursday to such a degree that a number of them had fled without hearing the news that would have brought them down more than the loss -- the demotion of Joe Smith.

Those who lingered, those who consoled the deposed rookie pitcher didn't feel too good either. A most popular figure in the gated community that is the Mets' clubhouse, Smith had been optioned to the club's Triple-A New Orleans affiliate, sent to a level of baseball he never has experienced in his year-plus as a professional. The move caught most of the Mets off guard; Smith, too.

"I wasn't worried about anything like this," he said.

With no sense of pending change, he responded to being called to the manager's office after the game.

"I pretty much figured it out then," he said, "when I saw everyone sitting in there."

Smith, 23, was ushered out of the Mets' immediate plans by assistant general manager Tony Bernazard, manager Willie Randolph, coaches Rick Peterson and Guy Conti and by the three hits he surrendered in the course of his four-batter appearance in the seventh inning. He hadn't been pitching effectively of late, but the Mets hadn't discussed his demotion until he allowed three inherited runners to score on line-drive singles by Jason Bay and Freddie Sanchez, and a weakly-struck, well-positioned double by Josh Phelps.

His luck of late hadn't been particularly good either.

"You've got to have some luck to get out of a rut," Smith said.

He eyes were red and, it seemed, a tad moist as he spoke. But he seemed more like the kid the veterans had come to enjoy by the time "see ya soons" were exchanged.

The club made no announcement about whom would replace Smith, though there were indications Jon Adkins, the right-handed reliever acquired from the Padres in November, was a likely addition. The veterans expected -- and hoped -- Smith would return soon.

"I knew he was struggling a little," Shawn Green said. "But you still felt good when he was out there, that you were competing."

Smith had lost significant velocity on the sub-sidearm pitches -- from low-to-mid 90s to 86 mph Thursday -- that won him a job on the Opening Day roster and enabled him to limit opponents to four runs in his first 29 appearances (26 1/3 innings) and a .204 batting average in 93 at-bats through June 7. The three hits he allowed Thursday put the opponents' batting average in 56 subsequent at-bats against him at .375. He stranded 12 of the first 13 runners he inherited, but since then, 19 of 26 have scored.

Though he preferred not to acknowledge fatigue as a factor, Smith did say, "I haven't been myself. My pitches have been up. Things haven't been the way they should. I don't feel fatigued every day when I walk in here or anything like that. Have I hit a wall? I don't know. I think it's been my mind in the way lately. I still think I can get big-league hitters out. ... I don't think there's anything mechanically wrong with me. I think it's just the fact of my head getting in the way. I thought I had it taken care of."

Smith, who has a 2-1 record, pitched 38 2/3 innings, six more innings than he did last summer with the Mets' Class A Brooklyn and Double-A Binghamton affiliates. The Mets selected him in the third round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft.

"It is the biggest adjustment you make when you get to the big leagues," Aaron Heilman said about Smith on Sunday in Los Angeles. "And for Joe, it's been even bigger because he hardly played [in the Minors] last year. It wears on you. We all know what he's going through because we went through it. But not many have done what Joe's done -- pretty much going straight from college to this. And that makes it harder. In college, it was pretty easy to get up for each game. You played four or five games a weeks, tops. Now it is every day."

For now, the everyday of it happens in New Orleans and other Pacific Coast League outposts. It won't feel the same. When Smith spoke of his recent performance last weekend, he acknowledged a decline in effectiness.

"I need to get back to where I was," he said.

The same words have assumed a different meaning now.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.