PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Daisuke Matsuzaka appeared determined to eliminate any ambiguity regarding his standing with the Mets.
One day after Jenrry Mejia staked his claim for the open fifth starter's spot, Matsuzaka offered perhaps his most convincing effort of spring training Monday, lifting the Mets to a 5-3 victory over the Cardinals.
In one afternoon, Matsuzaka showcased the improvements he's made since joining the Mets late last season. He worked efficiently and quickly to put himself in line to make the Opening Day roster.
In six innings, Matsuzaka allowed one run and three hits. He walked three and struck out five, lowering his ERA to 3.86.
"He threw all of his pitches and commanded them all," Terry Collins said.
The performance came one day before an important deadline for the Mets. Matsuzaka must be told by Tuesday whether he will make the Opening Day roster. If not, he must be released or given a $100,000 retention bonus to accept an assignment to the minors.
"He pitched very well," Collins said. "He was very impressive, as he always can be. He got into a little bit of a groove and made pitch after pitch."
Yet the Mets weren't ready to make any decisions -- at least not immediately. After Matsuzaka's start, Collins and members of the front office began meetings to determine who will make the Opening Day roster.
Collins expected the discussions to spill into Tuesday. And Matsuzaka, limited to 1212/3 innings the past three seasons by Tommy John surgery and back problems, gave the decision-makers plenty to think about.
"Condition-wise, I felt great throughout ," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "My body was great, but the results weren't exactly what I was hoping for them to be. So today I went up there knowing that this would be my last chance to show what I can do out there."
From the earliest days of camp, Matsuzaka, 33, appeared to be the favorite to win the fifth spot in the rotation. After struggling in his first three appearances for the Mets last season, Matsuzaka went 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA in his final four starts.
The Mets re-signed him to a minor-league deal and looked to him as a natural candidate to fill the rotation. But as spring training unfolded, Mejia made a serious bid, forcing team executives to take a closer look. Team insiders insisted that the competition had become a virtual dead heat.
While Mejia brings more upside, Matsuzaka possesses more experience.
"It certainly gives him an edge that he's done it before and he's done it a lot," Collins said. "But certainly, with the way Jenrry threw yesterday, he's got to be in that mix."
Aside from his own performance, Matsuzaka appears to have other factors going his way. An elbow injury limited Mejia to 52 innings last season, meaning he likely will be saddled with an innings limit this season. Although the Mets have not set a hard cap, the limitations could compromise Mejia's ability to pitch deep into games and finish the season.
Adding Mejia, 24, to the Opening Day roster also would carry financial implications. He would be far more likely to accrue enough service time to qualify for salary arbitration one year early, meaning the Mets would be forced to pay him more than the minimum salary next season.
If they choose Matsuzaka, the Mets won't have to worry about either consideration.
"I've done pretty much everything I can and showed what I can do out there," Matsuzaka said. "So the decision is up to them now. We'll see what happens."
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