The thought of Mike Pelfrey starting on Opening Day hardly will conjure up much confidence among Mets fans, considering his up-and-down career.
But with Johan Santana's status for the start of the 2011 season uncertain because of his impending left shoulder surgery, the Mets have no choice but to enter the offseason with Pelfrey as their interim ace.
And in his first day at the front of the rotation, the righthander responded by doing a pretty good impersonation of a No. 1 starter.
Yes, the Mets' 4-3 victory over the Phillies Saturday meant little to them in terms of the standings; their visions of a postseason run vanished many weeks ago. That has left the front office spending these final weeks in full evaluation mode for the 2011 season, and in that sense, the Mets had to have liked what they saw from Pelfrey against a perennial playoff contender.
En route to a final line of two runs and six hits in 71/3 innings, Pelfrey (14-9, 3.89 ERA) held the Phillies scoreless through the first seven innings. Only one man reached second base in those innings.
Pelfrey looked nothing like the pitcher who couldn't escape the fourth inning against the last-place Nationals in his last start. Manager Jerry Manuel referred to him as "an enigma" after that start, and that word fit all the more after Pelfrey's strong follow-up performance against Philadelphia.
"I'm hopeful," Manuel said, "that this is the Pelfrey you'll see for the rest of his career."
Ike Davis went 4-for-4 with three RBIs and Jose Reyes, in his second game back from a two-week hiatus because of a strained right oblique muscle, added a solo home run to account for the Mets' scoring. And for a while, it looked as though Pelfrey would need only one run to win this game.
Ryan Howard's two-out, two-run single off Pedro Feliciano cut the Mets' lead to 4-3, but Manny Acosta struck out Jayson Werth to end the eighth. Hisanori Takahashi pitched a scoreless ninth for his sixth save in Francisco Rodriguez's absence.
Pelfrey has respectable overall statistics this season, but he entered the game at 3-7 with a 5.77 ERA in his last 13 starts, with opponents hitting .345 off him.
Pitching well against the Phillies helped separate him from that awful stretch, and he said he won't let that slump put a damper on what he believes has been a productive season.
"I think you need to look at the big picture," Pelfrey said. "I know the second half hasn't been quite what you'd like, but at the end of the year, when I sit back and reflect, I'll look at everything overall and look at the whole year together."
It will be easier to do that, of course, if Pelfrey pitches this way in his final four starts of the season. He said two of his goals coming into the season were to win 15 games and reach 200 innings; with 14 wins and 1752/3 innings, he has a shot at achieving both.
As for playing the role of rotation leader while Santana is rehabbing his shoulder, Pelfrey chose not to play along.
When asked if he views Santana's absence as an opportunity for him to take the next step, he said: "No matter what the situation is, my job is to go out there and put up zeroes . . . I just want to finish strong the last four starts I have."
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