WASHINGTON -- Chris Young returns Tuesday to a Mets rotation that bears little resemblance to the one he left April 10 because of biceps tendinitis. The names remain the same. But the performance has improved considerably in the last five games, with the others pitching more like Young did in his two pre-injury outings.
Young was 1-0 with a 1.46 ERA, and despite coming off last season's shoulder issues, he made it through seven innings and allowed only one hit against the Nationals. Six days later, he wound up on the disabled list with tendinitis, but he has watched the rest of the rotation pick up where he left off.
Beginning last Wednesday, when R.A. Dickey pitched eight innings in a loss to the Astros, the Mets' starters are 4-1 with a 2.57 ERA and an average of seven innings per outing. They have 20 strikeouts and nine walks in that stretch.
Asked to explain the staff's sudden turnaround, Young had a relatively simple answer. "First and foremost,'' he said, "everybody here is a good pitcher."
At one time or another, yes, but the Mets' arms are at very different points in their careers. Mike Pelfrey, a miscast No. 1, is trying to show that last year's 15-win season was no fluke. Dickey, at No. 2, just signed his first guaranteed contract (two years, $7.8 million) in December at age 36.
Jon Niese's spot reportedly was in jeopardy before Sunday's bounce-back start in which he held the Diamondbacks to two earned runs in seven innings. Young and Chris Capuano are in similar situations, having to prove that their injury-riddled pasts are behind them.
As Young suggested, and general manager Sandy Alderson has hoped, the upside is there. It's a matter of pitching to that potential and staying healthy long enough to make an impact beyond a dozen starts or so.
Less than a month into the season, the rotation appears to have stabilized, with an assist from Young's interim replacement, Dillon Gee.
"I think the brightest sign has been our starting pitching," manager Terry Collins said. "It's really stepped up here this week and gotten us to where we want to get to. I think you see a difference in the bullpen when you can put them in spots where they just have to pitch to certain guys. It makes them more comfortable."
Getting that length from the starters has enabled Collins to employ his most reliable three relievers -- Pedro Beato, Jason Isringhausen and Francisco Rodriguez -- in the type of 7-8-9 formula every manager craves.
The bottom line is that a solid rotation makes the rest of the game that much easier, which is how it looked for the Mets as they won four straight to close out the homestand.
"I think that we'll go as far as our starting pitching carries us," David Wright said. "Obviously, the hitting has been better. But I think it all starts and ends with our starting pitching. When we get those kind of efforts, we win games."
Alderson has displayed an itchy trigger finger when it comes to performance, ditching Blaine Boyer and Brad Emaus. He did it again Sunday by keeping Gee, in an undefined role, and demoting D.J. Carrasco.
The GM wants the best pitching staff he can maintain, and that could wind up with Gee in the rotation again at some point. Last week, Alderson talked with Collins about moving Capuano to the bullpen to make room for Gee. But Capuano's strong seven innings against the Astros on Thursday persuaded them to put that plan on hold.
Young, after two side sessions over the weekend, feels prepared to take over his No. 4 duties again -- even after a bout of food poisoning last week that was followed by an upper-respiratory virus. When asked if it was like Pelfrey's ailment, Young replied, "Yeah, but without the vomit."
Notes & quotes: Ronny Paulino (oblique) went 1-for-4 Monday and caught the entire game for Triple-A Buffalo. He's expected to play again Tuesday and could be promoted shortly afterward . . . Angel Pagan (oblique) and Bobby Parnell (blood clot) left the Mets to begin rehab in Port St. Lucie.