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Friday, April 4, 2008
Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa returns to major leagues with renewed confidence

Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Nelson Figueroa won't be easily rattled in his return to the major leagues after a four-year absence.

Figueroa, called up to the New York Mets on Wednesday, said a baseball tour of the world has given him an assurance on the mound he never felt before.

He said he realized that when he pitched one scoreless inning Wednesday at Florida, his first major league appearance since Sept. 24, 2004.

"I entered that game, and I had a calm about me that I've never had before," Figueroa said Friday before the Mets and Braves were rained out. "I was always so worried about, what if I didn't do well, would I get sent down?"

Figueroa's fears were realized was last year, when he was released by Seattle on the final day of spring training.

Then came Figueroa's confidence-building world tour:

- He made 19 starts, including 10 complete games, for Los Dorados de Chihuahua of the Mexican League.

- He then went to Taiwan to pitch in the Chinese Professional League, winning each of his four starts and winning MVP honors in the Taiwan Series.

- He also pitched for Mexico in the Caribbean World Series, adding another MVP honor.

So when the 33-year-old Figueroa was the last cut on the Mets' pitching staff this spring, he didn't panic.

"I've been everywhere in the world," he said. "I got the opportunity to pitch. That's all I cared about.

"If I get sent down, I'm still in the States. I'm still with the New York Mets. I'm still going to have an opportunity. Whereas, two years ago I threw seven straight complete games down in Mexico and didn't get a single phone call from anyone in the States to go and help out anybody."

The Mets called for Figueroa's help this week after Pedro Martinez was placed on the disabled list with a hamstring injury.

"He can spot start, long relief, short relief," said Mets manager Willie Randolph. "That's what I like about him, is that he does bring so many different cards to the table."

Figueroa was 2-2 with a 4.32 ERA and one save in spring training.

"He had a nice spring for us," Randolph said. "Anytime you put a team together it's not always who is the best, it's the makeup of the bullpen. That's what happened to him."

Figueroa gave credit for his long-awaited return to the big leagues to his wife, Alisa, and daughter, Renee, and Mets special assistant to the general manager Ramon Pena.

He said his family deserves credit for sticking with him on his world tour.

"It put a strain on us," he said. "I can't thank them enough for their love and support. For them tagging along for this, they've been letting me chase the dream and supported me through it."

Figueroa said it was Pena who scouted Figueroa and told general manager Omar Minaya the right-hander could help the Mets.

Figueroa is 7-17 in five seasons with Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. He was 0-3 with a 5.72 ERA in 10 games with the Pirates in 2004.

"The knock has always been I'm a 4-A pitcher," he said, referring to the no man's land between the majors and the minors.

"I got the chance around the world to let my talent shine without being worried about getting sent down. I can only pitch wherever you put me. Give me the opportunity to be on your team ... so I can prove to you that I can do it."

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AP freelance writer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd contributed to this report.