Feliciano to join Puerto Rico in Classic

Feliciano to join team Puerto Rico

NEW YORK -- The common and inescapable sentiment around Puerto Rico these days is that compared to last time, the island's World Baseball Classic team will be better. Much better. Seems no one was laughing when the Puerto Rican team lost in the second round of pool play in the inaugural tournament -- and no one's quite gotten over it, either.

Now that Mets reliever Pedro Feliciano has committed to rejoin the team -- he confirmed that much on Wednesday -- he's starting to hear the messages, too.

"Everybody says it," Feliciano said in a telephone interview. "Everybody says that this year will be more exciting and better."

And perhaps it will. Feliciano, a left-handed reliever who produced a spotless ERA in the inaugural Classic, will join already-confirmed Mets teammates Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado on the Puerto Rican roster. His confirmation brings the total number of Mets in the Classic to four -- David Wright also announced that he will play for Team USA.

In addition, Venezuelan pitchers Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez have said that they would like to play for their national team, and Dominican shortstop Jose Reyes has said that he would like to do the same.

All of them, with the exception of Wright, played in the inaugural Classic in 2006. And two other Mets, catcher Brian Schneider and reliever Duaner Sanchez, played for Team USA and the Dominican Republic, respectively -- though neither has publicly expressed plans to do so again.

For Feliciano, the 2009 Classic will be an opportunity to mingle with fellow countrymen and try to advance far deeper than his team did three years ago. After winning all three of its games in opening-round pool play in 2006, the Puerto Rican team then dropped two of three in the second round, finishing last in a pool that included the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and eventual runner-up Cuba.

And still, the experience was positive.

"Spending that time with guys of your nationality that you never otherwise play with, it's something else," Feliciano said. "In '06, I loved it."

Feliciano didn't allow a run in three appearances, then went on to have his best Major League season. But 2008 was a step back from his own lofty standards -- he produced a 6.27 ERA after the All-Star break, contributing to the bullpen's widely-publicized collapse. Neither he nor Scott Schoeneweis proved to be a reliable left-handed option down the stretch, forcing manager Jerry Manuel to place other relievers in unfamiliar roles.

Now, Schoeneweis, Aaron Heilman and Joe Smith are gone, traded off within the span of days. And in their places are Rodriguez, J.J. Putz and Sean Green, three new pieces of the bullpen puzzle.

Rodriguez will close, Putz will set up, and -- barring the acquisition of another left-hander in the bullpen -- Feliciano will be the primary lefty specialist. It's a set of defined roles that no one outside of Billy Wagner could enjoy in recent years, and it's the type of plan that Feliciano believes will bring swift and marked improvement to the bullpen.

"I think the team will be more relaxed," he said. "I think with those guys [Rodriguez and Putz], you don't have to be waiting for something wrong to happen. You just try to be more relaxed, and when they call you to pitch, you're ready."

It's certainly easier for Feliciano to be relaxed now, knowing that he's one of the bullpen survivors. For weeks, rumors swirled that the Mets might send Feliciano to the Rockies in a deal for reliever Huston Street, and he heard the rumors constantly. Only once the Mets signed Rodriguez and traded for Putz, in fact, did Feliciano finally relax.

"I thought I would be gone," he said. "But I'm here, so that means that they're looking forward for me to try to bring the team to the playoffs."

It's a feat he's already accomplished with his Puerto Rican Winter League team, Leones de Ponce, which finished in first place and will begin a playoff series on Friday. Feliciano traveled to New York on Tuesday for an MRI on his left ankle, which he sprained recently after slipping on the floor of his house. Yet team doctors told him not to worry, that he would be fine even for this weekend's Winter League playoff games.

Which means he'll also be fine for the World Baseball Classic, his chance to hearten all the well-wishers in Puerto Rico.

"We've got pretty good players," Feliciano said. "We're down in pitchers a little bit, but I think we've got a pretty good team. If we hit, we'll do all right."

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