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12/09/08 9:55 PM EST

With K-Rod, Manuel can relax a little

Mets manager ready to welcome elite closer into fold

LAS VEGAS -- Until the Mets begin playing at Citi Field in April, they won't be able to fully understand the winds, the dimensions, the quirks of their new field. And manager Jerry Manuel acknowledged that much on Tuesday, though something else -- something he could not acknowledge -- gave him reason not to worry.

"If you've got good pitching, and theoretically a good closer," Manuel said, emphasizing that last bit, "you're in good shape."

His not-so-subtle hint landed near the feet of free-agent closer Francisco Rodriguez, who by Tuesday afternoon was close to finalizing a three-year deal with the Mets. Manuel could not acknowledge the deal, just as general manager Omar Minaya could not confirm it. But the aftershocks of that nearly-done deal resonated in each of Manuel's words.

Last season was difficult for Manuel, and only partially because he managed it under the shadow of an interim tag. By late August, when it became clear that Billy Wagner would miss the remainder of the season with an elbow injury, Manuel's inherited bullpen had begun to crumble. And by late September, that bullpen had become the primary reason why the Mets were in danger of missing the playoffs for the second successive year.

The presence of Rodriguez, if only in the most preliminary of terms, gave Manuel reason on Tuesday to feel confident for the upcoming season. His team is now a few formalities away from patching its most conspicuous weakness. And few people will benefit from that more than Manuel.

"The way in which we lost games, and probably myself trying to interchange so many pieces late, I think that kind of wore on the players," Manuel said. "We didn't have many options, but I think that hurt us also."

Managing in the opposite league and on the opposite coast as Rodriguez, Manuel is only vaguely familiar with the closer who saved a Major League-record 62 games last season. Rodriguez's first full season in the big leagues was Manuel's last with the White Sox in the American League, though that hasn't prevented the Mets' skipper from admiring from afar.

"Obviously, he's a tremendously skilled closer," Manuel said. "I was impressed with the energy that he had when he came out, and obviously along with that came some confidence. [He's a] very confident young man. He's an exciting guy to talk about."

Manuel still thinks about what happened at the end of last year, just as he thinks about the events of the year before -- events that helped precipitate Willie Randolph's dismissal and Manuel's ascension into the manager's role. But he hasn't done much thinking about next year just yet, because Manuel isn't quite sure about the complexion of his team.

He knows three of his starters, headed by Johan Santana. And he knows that Minaya will attempt to follow up his latest acquisition with one for a starting pitcher.

Until then, however, Manuel is sticking to the company line. He said on Tuesday that he expected Luis Castillo to play second base, Jonathon Niese to step seamlessly into the rotation, and Daniel Murphy and Fernando Tatis to hold their gains. And perhaps all of them will. But for the Mets to transform enough to become postseason favorites, they'll need to continue fitting new pieces into the back of their bullpen.

Consider Tuesday a start. If nothing else, Rodriguez's deal gave Manuel reason to shrug off some of the problems of last September, to focus instead on the man who is expected to solve them.

With Rodriguez in tow, there should be no more wondering who will close out games, no more nightly micromanaging in the eighth and ninth innings. The signing should give Manuel, as much as is possible in New York, reason to relax.

"For me to have gone through that particular situation was a tremendous learning experience for me in the sense that I had to stay in tune to the very last out, and that's growth," Manuel said. "As painful as it was, it was growth."

Then he went back to walking the company line, dodging questions about Rodriguez and answering others with a "theoretical" spin.

"'Theoretically,'" Manuel said. "That's the word on the street."

Then he laughed at his own joke -- and he could laugh, knowing that his Mets were close to improving their team in precisely the way they envisioned.

"They say the word on the street is good," Manuel said.

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