A Fifth-Starter Problem for the Mets

orlandohernandez A Fifth Starter Problem for the MetsThe Mets sent a pair of pitchers, Orlando Hernandez and Mike Pelfrey, to the mound on Sunday in Port St. Lucie in an attempt to settle on someone to take the fifth spot in the starting rotation. Neither provided much in the way of results—Hernandez gave up five earned runs in three innings, while Pelfrey was touched for eight earned runs in four and one-third in a 14-4 loss to the Cardinals.

But while both are, in many ways, learning how to pitch—Pelfrey due to inexperience, Hernandez with an altered delivery due to an ongoing bunion problem—only El Duque seemed to show any progress. With Pelfrey’s continued difficulties throwing anything but fastballs, and a lack of in-house options, the Mets’ ability to have success at the fifth-starter spot is probably going to hinge on the health and effectiveness of an often-injured, 40-something pitcher.

Some of the questions surrounding the reinvention of Orlando Hernandez were answered Sunday, though troubling ones remain. Hernandez’s discomfort was apparent from the moment he began warming up in the makeshift bullpen along the third base line. He seemed to be adjusting with every pitching, shifting continually from a full overhand motion to a three-quarter delivery.

“My mechanics are not good yet,” Hernandez told a conclave of reporters in front of his locker following his performance. “I know what I have to work on in the bullpen.”

He had all kinds of difficulties with command in the first inning. He began leadoff hitter Skip Schumacher with a fastball inside, followed by a trademark curve dropping in for a strike. But after Schumaker fouled off another inside fastball, Hernandez missed with a curve, then left a change-up high that Schumaker lined into the gap for a double.

The next hitter, Aaron Miles, lunged at a fastball out of the zone, fouling it off. Hernandez then missed with four straight, bending and stretching uneasily between pitches.

That brought up Albert Pujols, the biggest threat in the St. Louis lineup. Hernandez mixed in two curves for strikes with a pair of fastballs that missed the plate. On a 3-2 mistake fastball up, Pujols skied to center. It was an out; not a success.

Hernandez next hit Rick Ankiel on a 1-1 count, again showing an inability to control his fastball. He fell behind Chris Duncan 3-1, then broke his bat—but the ball dropped into left field anyway, giving the Cardinals an early lead. He came back to induce groundouts by Yadier Molina and Adam Kennedy, but had fallen behind each hitter. A third run came in on the Molina groundout—but more importantly, he threw 34 pitches, and just 16 for strikes.

Hernandez seemed to find his way after that. He threw 35 pitches total in the second and third innings: 22 strikes, 13 balls. His fastball topped out at 85 miles per hour, but that represented a jump from his last simulated game on Tuesday, when the radar gun had him at just 81. Since he normally works at 86-89, it is reasonable to think he can reach his normal velocity by the start of the season. His curveball had more of its old, looping movement in his last two innings. And he even located his change up consistently for strikes.

If a pitcher can throw three of his pitches for strikes, the results will come. The unanswered questions for Hernandez, of course, are if he can take his fastball up another notch, if he can find his command in the pregame warm-up, rather than after the opposing team has put runs on the board, and as ever—will he wake up injured tomorrow?

“I’m going to keep trying,” Hernandez said. “But this is not easy. I will work out on the mound, work on it every day. I think my location was good. I’m not happy, but I didn’t pitch too badly.”

The outing by Mike Pelfrey, meanwhile, was far more troubling. Pelfrey entered in the fifth inning, and with the shakiness of Hernandez’s start, could have made a real claim to the fifth starter position with a stellar performance. He threw heat from the get-go, inducing a groundout of Duncan, striking out Molina on three pitches, and then getting Kennedy to fly out on the eighth pitch of his at-bat.

But Kennedy’s turn foreshadowed Pelfrey’s troubles. He threw eight fastballs, and many of them were up in the strike zone. For Pelfrey to be effective, he not only needs to throw fastballs at the knees, getting strikeouts or groundouts, but his failure to mix in off-speed pitches meant that the hitters could time him.

Pelfrey allowed a pair of runs in the sixth, then six in the ninth before giving way to Brandon Nall.

“It just seemed like so many of my pitches were getting the middle of the plate, up in the zone, and they were hitting them,” a disappointed Pelfrey said afterward by his locker.

It was not for a lack of understanding—Pelfrey is intelligent, and said, “I definitely know what I’m doing wrong. It’s definitely correctable,” but he has yet to correct these problems, and he’s been working on them since the Mets drafted him in 2005. It is hard to imagine those problems will disappear by the time the Mets need a fifth starter on April 6.

As he spoke about the competition for the fifth spot, his tense changed from present to past, as if he were resigned to losing out to Hernandez.

Asked if he believed he had lost his chance, Pelfrey said, “I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out. I’d have liked to perform better. I guess I didn’t. I suppose I’ll get another opportunity sometime.”