PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Opening Day? In the case of Mike Pelfrey, his assignment Friday against the Marlins is more like Judgment Day. Every pitch Pelfrey ever has thrown, from Wichita Heights High to Wichita State University, has led him to this night in Miami, where the fates have aligned to anoint him the No. 1 starter for the Mets.
It's not just a number. The person who previously held the title, Johan Santana, owns two Cy Young Awards and a $137.5-million contract. Before him, there was Tom Glavine, another two-time Cy Young winner, and the one before him was Pedro Martinez, who has three.
Technically, Santana remains the ace of the Mets' staff, but that is in name only as he recovers from shoulder surgery that could cost him the entire season. In his place steps Pelfrey, coming off the best season of his career: 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA.
Manager Terry Collins didn't even wait for spring training to name Pelfrey his No. 1 starter. He did it in January, an unusual time for such an announcement. It lit a spark in Pelfrey as he looked forward to the season.
"I was fist-pumping," Pelfrey said. "I was excited. I always thought that watching Johan Santana throw during the last couple years, 'Man, it's pretty cool to get the ball on Opening Day.' It's a great honor, it's a great experience and now I'm going to get that opportunity."
The first night of a 162-game schedule is a minuscule fraction of a long season, but in the mind's eye, it is a gateway to greater things. Win the opener, and during the next 24 hours, anything seems possible. In the same way, the mythology of the No. 1 starter has made the job feel larger than life.
After Opening Day, the rotation can be juggled, and scheduling quirks can match up one team's ace against another's back-end starter. Still, the No. 1 is expected to carry the rest of the staff on his shoulders. To set the tone at the start of a series, keep the momentum in the middle of one or snap a losing streak at the end. There is greater pressure attached to that number, and a mind-set that goes along with it.
"No question," Santana said. "You cannot go out there with doubts in your mind. You always have to be on top of your game and be positive. Nothing is going to happen until you deliver the ball; that's the way I look at it. The whole world can come down, but until I throw the ball, nothing's going to happen, so I'm in control of what I want to do.
"You need to know exactly what you want to do at all times. You can't be caught off guard. You have to prepare yourself well."
Mental approach needed work
Until last season, those concepts seemed nearly impossible to grasp for Pelfrey. The Mets selected him ninth overall in the 2005 amateur draft, and early on, he appeared to buckle under the weight of those expectations. He went 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA in 32 starts during his first full season in 2008, but he regressed the following year.
For lack of a better term, Pelfrey had a tendency to beat himself up, in the middle of games as well as after a disappointing performance. Instead of growing into the role of a 6-7 intimidator, Pelfrey suffered from insecurity on the mound. He credits the late sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman for ultimately helping him pull out of that funk.
It was Dorfman's "tough love" approach that enabled Pelfrey to refocus, and in doing so, become a more confident pitcher. Dorfman died earlier this month, but that relationship helped build the foundation for Pelfrey's success moving forward.
"I've come to the understanding that I'm here for a reason," Pelfrey said. "Obviously, they believe I can get people out. I believe in myself that I can get people out. I don't need to try to be something that I'm not. I need to be myself. I need to go out there using my strengths, attack guys and be aggressive. I think when I do that, good things happen."
Coaching change has helped
Pitching coach Dan Warthen, who is close with Pelfrey, has witnessed that development. Warthen took over for Rick Peterson after he was fired along with Willie Randolph in June 2008, and that switch turned out to be a pivotal moment for Pelfrey.
Pelfrey butted heads with the super-analytical Peterson, whose instructional style clashed with the Mets' young pitcher. But the breakthrough with Warthen didn't happen until Year Two of the relationship, when Pelfrey narrowly missed an All-Star invitation after a 10-4 first half of the season.
"I think his focus and concentration came to the pinnacle," Warthen said, "where he realized that he is a quality pitcher with stuff that can get any hitter out. So I think there was no longer an issue with whether or not he believes he belongs in the major leagues."
If so, it's been quite a leap for Pelfrey, from the depths of that self-doubt to the front of the Mets' rotation. At 27, Pelfrey is the second youngest of the five (Jon Niese is 24). But as the headliner, there is a level of maturity required for the title, and Pelfrey's reached that both on and off the field.
His wife, Angela, gave birth to the couple's second child on Feb. 4, and with a family comes added responsibility. It may have little to do with what pitch sequence he uses against Hanley Ramirez, but it all goes back to the focus that comes with knowing your place in the world. For the first time, Pelfrey has that to start a season. So what if it comes against Marlins ace Josh Johnson.
"I thought last year I took a huge step forward, and obviously I want to continue to do that," Pelfrey said. "I want the best for my family, and I know in order for that to happen, I have to go out there and perform. I have to succeed, and that's what I plan on doing.
"It doesn't matter who I'm facing. I'm going to go out there, take the ball every fifth day, and I'm going to give you everything I have, and I guarantee that more times than not, it's going to work out. Going up against Josh Johnson, he's going to be on his game, I'm going to have to be on mine. So let's go. Let's do it. We'll see what happens."