Mike Pelfrey wasn't perfect or great or even especially good. But he was basically good enough by most big-league standards. "I gutted it out," he said, "with the stuff I had."

That could be the motto of the entire starting rotation, which is not where the Mets start when they start identifying the source of their problems. As dismal and disappointing as the season has been, the starting pitching is the one reason it has not been worse. It is possibly the biggest reason Jerry Manuel still was around Sunday to say, "Now is the time," instead of having seen his time come and go.

The Mets have a twist on the baseball axiom that says, "Momentum is only as good as tomorrow's starting pitcher." They haven't worked their way up to momentum lately, but they have learned that tomorrow's starting pitcher can hold off despair until the day after tomorrow. As bad as things are, imagine how they would be if the starters hadn't "gutted it out" while working with almost no support.

Pelfrey wasn't as sharp in last night's 3-1 loss to the Phillies as he had been during his seven innings of a 1-0 win over the Rockies on Tuesday. But he wasn't as awful as he had been for most of the second half, either. He went seven innings, allowing three runs and seven hits - enough to give the average team a chance to win.

"I thought it was a quality start," he said. "I think I threw the ball well . . . My secondary stuff, I wasn't very good in locating it. I don't know if I threw a slider for a strike all night. The curveball was real inconsistent, the split was OK. Besides that, I had my fastball."


Of course the Mets aren't close to being average offensively. They are 10-19 since the All-Star break even though their starters have allowed three runs or fewer in 22 of those games. They have not taken a run toward momentum despite the fact the starters had gone 4-2 with a 1.14 ERA in eight games entering last night.

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Yet, the pitching has prevented the team and its fans from turning out the lights altogether. Even in a bleak week dominated by Francisco Rodriguez's arrest and suspension, Mets fans couldn't resist getting excited by shutouts by Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey. The losses that preceded and succeeded those gems also were well pitched: Jonathon Niese was done in by the bullpen, Pat Misch done in by the defense. The latter remained calm Saturday amid the frenzy over Rodriguez's apology.

"As pitchers, that's what we're supposed to do, keep the team as close as possible so we can pull it out in the end," said Misch, who added he had not followed the big club closely before he was promoted from Triple-A Buffalo on Saturday. "From what I've seen and what I've heard, everybody has done really well. I'll just try to continue that."

For starters, what all of the members of the Mets rotation have to do is avoid thinking about how little breathing room they are likely to have.

"Your mind-et," Pelfrey said, "is you go out there and try to get people out."