Pelfrey applies lessons from last year
Young pitcher competing for fifth spot in Mets' rotation
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The bottom of the first inning was merely one pitch old, and already there was a conference on the mound. Mike Pelfrey was addressing -- or dressing down -- Mike Pelfrey. The first pitch to Curtis Granderson, the Tigers' fleet center fielder, had been called a ball by Larry Vanover. Pelfrey had no problem with the call, but rather with the location of his pitch.
"We're not doing this again," he told Mike Pelfrey. "That was last year. No more of that. If I'm going to go 0-7 again, I'm going to do it throwing strikes."
The conversation had the desired effect. Granderson fouled off three pitches before he grounded out. Then Placido Polanco struck out on six pitches, four of them strikes, and Timo Perez flied out on a 2-2 pitch. And the totals were: 16 pitches, 11 strikes, three outs and one pleased pitcher.
The first inning of the Mets' first exhibition game had gone as Pelfrey had envisioned -- strikes in abundance, outs in ample supply.
"I've got to start pitching well," Pelfrey said. "Might as well start at the beginning."
Pelfrey's quest to wrest the fifth place in the rotation away from Orlando Hernandez is the only real issue of competition in the Mets' universe this spring. For all the club says about how well Hernandez pitched last season and for all El Duque has said about starting, the best scenario for the Mets would have Pelfrey asserting himself this spring and forcing the club to choose between his 24-year-old potential and El Duque's 38-year-old resume.
"I don't even know if there is a spot in the rotation," Pelfrey said at least partially for reasons of tact. "But if there is, I want to make their decision difficult."
Pelfrey did as much as he could in that regard Wednesday in what became a 4-2 loss to the Tigers. He pitched two innings, faced six batters and threw 27 pitches, 18 for strikes. A misplay at third base by Anderson Machado was scored a hit in the second inning, though Machado bobbled the ball and then threw wide of first. It's Spring Training for scorers, too. Otherwise, Pelfrey's performance was without a glitch.
Pelfrey worked quickly, a conspicuous change from last season, and created a presence on the mound that rarely was evident in the 15 appearances -- 13 starts -- and 72 2/3 innings he pitched in 2007.
"I don't know if I look different," he said. "I know I feel different."
A winter working to refine his pitches and his command had fostered a sense of confidence that was lacking last year.
"It's hard to feel good about yourself when you're 0-7," Pelfrey had said Monday. The reference was to the record he produced in his first eight starts last season.
Pelfrey had merited a position in the rotation after a fine Spring Training performance. He also merited the assignment to Triple-A that followed May 15. His final record was 3-8. So there was improvement, and he did have his moments, not the least of which was his victory against the Braves in Atlanta on Sept. 1, after the Mets had been swept in four games in Philadelphia.
But mostly Pelfrey's '07 was about 0-7. Even with the 3-1 that followed, the season was a disappointment.
"I was given an opportunity and didn't take advantage of it," he said.
The opportunity exists again, though Hernandez is an obstacle. Pelfrey is essentially looking through El Duque, focusing on polishing his game and not the competition. And who can say what kind of competition El Duque will be anyway? He already is behind the other starters because of his root canal last week. And even after he threw what general manager Omar Minaya called "a really good bullpen" Tuesday, the club has no idea when Hernandez will pitch in an exhibition game.
Because of off-days in early April, the Mets probably won't even need a fifth starter until their 17th game. The club wants to do what benefits Pelfrey, too; and he needs to pitch regularly. So the chances of him beginning the season as the long man in the big league bullpen are not as good as him starting his season, as he did last year, in the Minor Leagues.
Pelfrey still may have business at that level. He's familiar with the phrase Bobby Valentine used to apply to prospects when they reach the threshold of the big leagues -- "He has to leave Triple-A behind." And Pelfrey hardly did that last year; witness his 3-6 record and 4.01 ERA in 14 starts.
Now, though, he believes he is better equipped for either challenge. He says he is better able to locate his fastball and that the improvement will enhance his other two pitches, the slider and changeup. Pelfrey remains a near novice with his slider. Pitching coach Rick Peterson had him eliminate the curve that had been so effective when Pelfrey pitched for Wichita State and replace it with the slider.
Only now does his slider have the late break that deceives hitters. Pelfrey was pleased with this slider Wednesday and delighted that the only two changeups he threw -- to Granderson and Carlos Guillen -- had the hitters off balance.
And his manager liked what he saw.
"He pounded the bottom of the strike zone, which is what we want from him," Willie Randolph said. "But he also elevated some pitches, and his pitches move so much, he can get away with that when he goes up."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.