VIERA, Fla. - The Mets waited until Saturday at Space Coast Stadium to unveil one of their most unpredictable rotations in recent memory.
In mapping out the exhibition schedule of the starters, the team's decision-makers built it around Johan Santana, who will make his Grapefruit League debut Tuesday, and then worked backward from there.
Without the World Baseball Classic to contend with this year, the Mets kept their rotation on hold an extra week as part of the "Prevention and Recovery" mantra. But that blueprint almost hit a speed bump Saturday when No. 2 starter Mike Pelfrey was smacked by a line drive off the bat of the Nationals' Cristian Guzman; it caromed off the side of his right knee in the second inning of the Mets' 14-6 victory. Pelfrey was able to finish his three-inning debut and later said he is OK.
The Mets need no reminders of how fragile a starting rotation can be. Pelfrey was the only one of the original five last season to avoid the disabled list. But the Mets still refused to sign any of the middle-tier free agents as insurance during the offseason, even with Santana and Oliver Perez coming off surgery and John Maine missing most of the season with shoulder issues.
Pelfrey's problems last season were self-inflicted. He struggled with the yips early that required the help of a sports psychologist to conquer. He also battled occasional moments of self-doubt en route to recording a 10-12 record and 5.03 ERA in 31 starts.
Just the concept of a fresh start this year might be enough to free Pelfrey from the mental handcuffs of last season. With that goal in mind, he worked with sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman during the offseason, and he also has focused on adding a split-fingered fastball to his repertoire since showing up for spring training. Manuel noticed a difference Saturday just in Pelfrey's body language.
"He stayed on the mound the whole time," Manuel said. "That was another thing that we talked about - the tempo. I thought he exhibited that today by not giving up a hit and then make three trips around the whole mound, come back to the dirt, blah, blah, blah. He stayed right there today, and that's a good sign for him."
Pelfrey was pleased with his command of the splitter and was less concerned with the numbers. He allowed seven hits - many of the ground-ball variety - and four runs, but only three were earned, thanks to an error by Ike Davis. He did not have a walk or strikeout and finished with a clean third inning.
"My thought process coming into the game was that I was going to have some adrenaline," Pelfrey said. "I wanted to keep that under control, to try to back off, and I think I did a good job of doing that. So it was positive in that aspect. I just need to have better location."
Pelfrey got a handful of pop-ups with the splitter and even tried it on a 3-and-2 pitch to Adam Dunn, who pulled an RBI single down the rightfield line.
Pelfrey also got typical results with his heavy sinker when he splintered Ryan Zimmerman's bat in the first. Unfortunately, the weak grounder still spun away from shortstop Ruben Tejada for an infield single.
In the second inning, Eric Bruntlett hammered a three-run homer on a sinker that stayed up in the strike zone and caught too much of the plate.
"I made a comment the other day, like, 'Hey, when is my ball going to start sinking?' " Pelfrey said. "For sinker guys, it takes half of spring training, so hopefully it will continue to get better."
Pelfrey was fortunate to survive his first start with nothing more serious than a bruised knee. Next up is Perez this afternoon, followed by Maine on Mondayand then Santana.
Results aren't too important at this stage. The bigger goal, once the games count, will be redemption. "I hope to get through it like we did today," Manuel said. "Hopefully, each time one of those guys gets better and better."