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Mets' Pelfrey keeps on winning

August 24, 2008|Wallace Matthews | Newsday

Joba who?

Phil Whatsisname? Ian Whooziwhatsis??

If during spring training you had made a list of the young starting pitchers in New York and ranked them according to their prospects for success in the upcoming season, you could argue over the who would be better, Chamberlain or Hughes, Kennedy or Humber. You could throw John Maine into the mix, too.

Each had either the credentials or the potential to be strongly considered as an important part of his team's pitching staff, perhaps even a future ace.

But there would have been no argument over which of them had the least expected of him and the worst prognosis for success.

For a guy who stands 6-7, the bar was set awfully low for Mike Pelfrey, which is what happens when you start a season 0-7, as he did last year, and follow it up with a 2-6 record for the first half of this one. The ultimate indignity came this off-season, when, offered a choice of Pelfrey or Phil Humber in the deal for Johan Santana, the Twins chose Humber.

But over the past three months, the landscape has shifted under the pitcher's mounds at both Shea and Yankee Stadium. One by one, the golden boys have fallen by the wayside -- Phil Hughes to a rib injury, Ian Kennedy to ineffectiveness, John Maine to a gradually deepening slump and Chamberlain, perhaps the most carefully-guarded arm in the history of New York baseball, to rotator cuff tendinitis -- and one made decidedly of brass, Pelfrey, has leapfrogged them all.

But what brass! Wednesday night, Pelfrey pitched the Mets third complete game of the season and first by a pitcher not named Johan in stifling the mailing-it-in Atlanta Braves, 6-3, at Shea. More incredibly, he assumed the team lead in wins, 12, one more than Santana, and most importantly, he went out to pitch the ninth with no need for cajoling, negotiation or a call to his agent to make sure it was OK.

He simply went out there and took the baseball. There is no more significant contribution a Met can make right now, coming at a time when the bullpen has five set-up men taking turns impersonating a closer and adds a new, strange face almost daily.

When Pelfrey sprinted out of the dugout to start the ninth, the Shea crowd cheered both in tribute and relief. Not seeing the Mets bullpen on any night is cause for ecstasy. Seeing Pelfrey pitch the way he did last night is cause for wonder.

As in, I wonder where this guy came from?

"Mike is evolving into one of the bright young pitching stars in the National League, no question about it," manager Jerry Manuel said. "From where he came from early in the season, we were questioning whether or not to have him on the staff, questioning whether or not to keep him in the rotation, and he's pretty much been a huge part of the success we've had here, and that's a tribute to him. He's worked very hard."

The change in Pelfrey since June 16 -- coincidentally, the night of the "Assassination in Anaheim" of Willie Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson -- has been remarkable. That night, he allowed six runs in six innings, and although he got the win after the Mets rallied for a 9-6 victory, Pelfrey's ERA sat at a healthy 4.62. In his ensuing 12 starts, Pelfrey has won nine, lost only two and dropped his ERA by nearly a run. The walks have gone down, the strikeouts have gone up.

And most importantly, according to Manuel, the confidence has risen nearly as high as the bill of Pelfrey's cap. "He's developing a presence on the mound," Manuel said. Asked whether Pelfrey's "evolution," as Manuel put it, was more mechanical or emotional, the manager didn't hesitate.

"Definitely emotional," he said. "There was never any issue with his mechanics or anything of that type. He just needed to cross that line and have some success."

"Jerry likes to say success breeds confidence and I totally agree with that," Pelfrey said. "I'm finally starting to realize that I don't have to be perfect, that I can make a mistake and get away with it."

Simply put, it's called trusting your stuff, something Pelfrey found difficult under the rigid, sometimes dogmatic Peterson. But he has thrived under the laissez-faire approach of Dan Warthen, and never did he seem more confident than when facing Met scourge Chipper Jones leading off the ninth. Pelfrey quickly went to 3-0, which in the past would have been his cue to give up on the at-bat. But with the encouragement of catcher Brian Schneider, Pelfrey threw three straight fastballs, the third of which froze Jones for strike three.

"I just told him throw it down the middle and if Chipper wants to hit it out of the ballpark, so what, it's still a two-run lead," Schneider said. "And he did it. That just shows how his pitching has evolved.

So, too has his persona. Not long ago, the Mets were wondering what they were going to do with Pelfrey.

These days, they're wondering what they would do without him.

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