PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Mets executives have yet to convene as a group to make a final call regarding the fifth spot in the starting rotation. But righthander Jenrry Mejia has made a strong push to seize the spot from veteran Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had long been presumed to be the favorite.
Mejia and Matsuzaka retain an equal chance of winning the job, a team official told Newsday on Sunday, when Mejia shined in what could be his final chance to make an impression.
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Manager Terry Collins acknowledged that a debate rages within the organization regarding the homegrown Mejia and the veteran Matsuzaka. Mejia's supporters contend that he brings the most upside; Matsuzaka's backers note his experience.
Said Collins: "Each time those guys go out . . . opinions change.''
According to a source, Mejia has expressed his preference to remain a starter, a request the Mets appear prepared to honor. But Mejia might have a few other factors going against him, primarily an innings cap that would affect his use in the rotation.
"The issue is, at this particular time, how many innings can he go this year?'' Collins said.
During his career, Mejia has thrown as many as 1082/3 innings in one season. But an elbow injury last season limited him to 52 innings, making a cap necessary.
Matsuzaka faces no such limits.
"It's an issue we have to take into account,'' general manager Sandy Alderson said. "I don't think it's determinative, but it's certainly an issue we have to keep in the back of our minds.''
The Mets might have to choose soon because of protections granted to the 33-year-old Matsuzaka in the collective-bargaining agreement. If the Mets don't give him a spot on the Opening Day roster by Tuesday, he must be paid $100,000 to accept a minor-league assignment or given his release.
But Mejia, 24, has shown all the qualities needed to keep his chances alive.
In a 3-1 split-squad win over the Nationals on Sunday, he allowed one run and two hits in five innings, striking out six.
He surrendered the run partly because Nationals manager Matt Williams successfully used a challenge to overturn a call in the first inning. Bryce Harper scored in the first after umpires initially called him out on an attempted steal of second base. Replay reversed the call.
But Mejia allowed nothing else the rest of the way. With his fastball touching 95 mph and with full command of all of his pitches, he put together four hitless innings.
"The only thing I can do is go out there, do my job, and they've got to make a decision,'' said Mejia, who has a 2.89 ERA in 91/3 innings in three starts.
Mejia's only trouble came in the fifth, and it had nothing to do with his pitching. A bunion on his right foot flared up. After a visit by trainer Ray Ramirez, Mejia stayed in the game to retire Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark, his final batter.
All Mejia can do now is wait. Matsuzaka, who has a 4.97 ERA in four outings, starts Monday against the Braves, his final appearance before Tuesday's deadline.
Who's on first? In a 4-1 split- squad loss to the Braves, Ike Davis went 0-for-2 before being pulled after four innings. "I think he was just beat,'' Alderson said. "There was no injury. I think it was just a little bit of fatigue from playing over the last several days.''
In Port St. Lucie, fellow first-base candidate Lucas Duda went 0-for-2 with a walk.
Notes & quotes: Lefthander John Lannan tossed a scoreless inning Sunday against the Nationals, his first appearance since the Mets began his conversion from starter to reliever. Collins said Lannan might pitch out of the bullpen again Monday . . . Second baseman Daniel Murphy made a sparkling defensive play in his first Grapefruit League action in a week. He had been nursing a sore right calf . . . The Mets released reliever Kyle Farnsworth Sunday but hope to re-sign him to another minor- league deal shortly. The move would allow the Mets to keep control of Farnsworth without having to pay a $100,000 bonus.