Rotation questions remain for Mets
Hernandez, Pelfrey shaky Sunday vs. Cardinals
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The Mets were able, proud and, finally willing to identify the pitchers who are to start the first four games of their 2008 season and disclose the sequence of their assignments.
Without so much as a momentary drum roll Sunday afternoon, manager Willie Randolph rattled off the names -- Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, Oliver Perez and John Maine -- as a public service, though he was satisfying questions that scarcely had been asked.
Not since the first day Martinez threw without restriction, pain or after-effect on a back field here last month had there been any sense of doubt about the front four. And chances are the most avid Mets follower could have waited another week to know the sequence of starters that would follow Santana and Martinez.
What's left to decide, perhaps with a cringe, is the identity of the No. 5 starter, and the inconvenient truth that it will be either Orlando Hernandez or Mike Pelfrey.
After an exhibition game loss Sunday in which El Duque pitched poorly and Pelfrey was less effective, the Mets steadfastly held to their plan to have a five-man rotation in place from the outset of the season, next week in Miami, and that their choices included the two who had flubbed their auditions in a 14-4 loss to the Cardinals.
The phrase "by default" went unused by Randolph, general manager Omar Minaya and pitching coach Rick Peterson in the hours that followed the unsatisfactory performances. But the Mets have no other alternatives, short of moving Jorge Sosa back to the starting role in which he temporarily thrived last season. That is not an option the club is considering.
Hernandez was to pitch four or five innings against the Cardinals, and Pelfrey was to pitch the remainder. And though Randolph indicated no final conclusion would have been drawn if one had pitched effectively, the Mets were hoping for much more than they witnessed, especially from Pelfrey.
Off what El Duque had demonstrated last week in a simulated game, the Mets were unsure what they could rightfully expect from their elder statesman. Whatever they did expect, his performance probably fell short -- velocity, command and progress all lacking.
Hernandez needed 69 pitches to complete three innings -- 38 were strikes, three were swinging strikes and too many served no purpose other than to challenge his stamina. One scout suggested El Duque finally was acting his age -- listed as 38, thought to be 45, and skyrocketing with each misnomered, 80 mph fastball.
"He's still fun to watch," the scout said. "He's the closest thing to [Luis] Tiant. But I'm not sure how much he's got left."
Another scout joked about El Duque's velocity and added derisively, "And with pinpoint control."
Hernandez's velocity was consistently down. The long home run Rick Ankiel hit against him in the second inning came on an 60 mph pitch. Raul Casanova, El Duque's catcher, said three times "He didn't have the velocity he wanted today." Most of the radar readings began with a "7."
"My mechanics are not good yet," he said. He planned to watch videotape and to slow down his delivery so his arm can catch up with his body and he can keep his pitches lower.
Hernandez didn't work deeply enough into the game for Pelfrey to follow him immediately. So Pelfrey was afforded sufficient time to warm up. Regardless, what followed was an eyesore, even for an exhibition game -- eight runs, 13 hits and a walk in a 26-batter sequence that lasted 4 1/3 innings. It was a step back for Pelfrey at a time when a step forward might allowed the Mets to make a decision -- whether or not they would have announced it.
Had the performance come in a regular-season game, Pelfrey's work would have constituted "taking one for the team," i.e., absorbing a beating to spare the bullpen. Nothing was spared in this one, though, least of all his feelings.
He seemed a tad shell-shocked after he was removed, though he spoke matter of factly.
"I was hoping to do a lot better," he said. "I was more aggressive. But my pitchers were up in the zone. And then they got in the swing mode -- every pitch, 'whack.'"
"Maybe that's why they left him out there," a fellow pitcher suggested, "to get him mad or get it out of his system."
So, on a day when the Mets might have decided on a fifth starter, the two candidates allowed 17 hits and 13 runs. A good performance wouldn't have mattered all that much for either. The club still would have wanted to see another game. But performances this poor, this late in the spring, for a team with postseason aspirations ... "You would have liked to have seen more," Minaya said.
"They didn't step up and distinguish themselves," was Randolph's take.
Each man declined to speculate whether Hernandez could somehow show enough improvement before the fifth game of the season, on April 5 in Atlanta, to have a chance to pitch effectively. They offered little of the silver-lining salve prompted by his other performances -- bullpen sessions, batting practices and a simulated game. Peterson pointed out some, but they were mostly mechanical. And the time has almost arrived when procedure doesn't matter, only outs do.
A poorly as Hernandez pitched, Pelfrey was the greater disappointment. He wasn't adjusting to an altered delivery or dealing with a bunion and a body that may be twice as old as some of the batters he faces. Peterson noted how well Pelfrey had thrown between starts and before he entered the games, and said "If he can exhale, relax and carry what he has into the game."
And the men who watched from the stands were perplexed by Pelfrey. "He was better when I saw him two years ago," one of them said. "He still has that heavy ball, and the changeup isn't bad. But the slider is getting killed. He may be better off just scrapping it and going sinker, changeup, 'cause what he's throwing up there now as a breaking ball isn't going to get him a job."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.