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Healthy And Happy

June 7, 2004
By Marty Noble

NEW YORK--Even before the Mets made him the third player selected in the amateur draft, Phil Humber had connections. His college coach played for the Mets 40 years ago. The pitcher he idolized as a kid, Nolan Ryan, began his career with the Mets, and Scott Kazmir, the Mets' first-round selection in the 2002 draft, was Humber's summer teammate three years ago.

The Mets have other connections in mind for the 21-year-old righthander from Rice University. They hope to sign Humber and bring his confidence, big-game experience and fearsome curveball to the organization and, relatively soon thereafter, to the big leagues.

One of a trio of top pitching prospects at Rice, Humber was the one the Mets wanted for several reasons, not the least of which was his health. He was the only one of the three who hadn't experienced arm trouble--no small consideration for an organization that has too many vivid memories of high-profile pitching prospects who broke down--Paul Wilson, Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, Billy Traber, Sean Johnston, and Kirk Presley.

Wayne Graham, a third baseman for Casey Stengel's Mets in 1964 and Humber's coach for three seasons at Rice, called Humber durable and said "He has arm strength and aptitude." The coach left it to Humber to characterize his curveball as "the best in the country."

The curveball breaks late and hard, and Humber's willingness to throw in all situations distinguishes the pitch and the pitcher.

Humber, 6-4 and 210 pounds, also throws a 90-94 mph fastball that has touched 97, an effective changeup and a split-fingered fastball.

"He's got the pitches and velocity," Graham said. "He's got the velocity to pitch inside. But with aluminum bats (in college), the tendency is to pitch away. Once he get used to pitching inside, he'll be ready to go."

Humber didn't have many problems with aluminum. He was 13-4, 2.27 with 154 strikeouts in 115 innings.

The Mets were uncertain at what level Humber would begin his professional career. Scouting director Gary LaRocque said Humber's assignment will depend on how long it takes for him to sign, but the general feeling was the pitcher will pitch at Double-A at some point this year, unless negotiations drag or the Mets opt to shut him down early because of the large number of innings he's already thrown.

Humber was selected less than 24 hours after he had allowed an eight-inning grand slam against Texas A&M that ended Rice' season and its chance to defend its 2003 national championship.

"Yesterday was a real bad feeling," he said after being selected. "But the sun came up. And I couldn't ask for a better situation that I'm in now."

METAMORPHOSES

The Mets took righthanded pitchers with five of their first eight picks, including Humber, second rounder Matt Durkin out of San Jose State and third-rounder Gaby Hernandez from Belen Jesuit High in Miami. Durkin features a mid-90s fastball, but battled inconsistency with his breaking ball as a junior, a must if he is going to remain in a starting rotation.

The Mets fourth-round pick, Washington catcher Aaron Hathaway, was one of the better catch-and-throw prospects in the draft. He has more work to do with the bat--as he hit .317-9-42 this season.

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