- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- There's only one storyline that feels like it eclipses everything else round the New York Mets now that contending for even the wild-card looks gone, and it's not the news that Jose Reyes and David Wright are finally just days away from coming back from the disabled list.
Kicking around the possible trades the Mets could make by the July 31 deadline has become the most interesting reason left to follow them now, so it was inevitable that starter Mike Pelfrey's name came up as trade bait a few days ago. Or that Pelfrey -- behaving as though there might actually be some credence to the idea -- said what big leaguers usually say: He'll go wherever baseball might take him.
Then Pelfrey's start arrived Sunday against the Philadelphia Phillies, and Pelfrey put together another one of those confounding games of his that were a reminder why, for better or worse, he's not going anywhere anytime soon.
Pelfrey was good when he was good and inexplicably vulnerable when he was bad Sunday. He limited the Phillies to one run through the first four innings. But he also coughed up two hits to opposing pitcher Kyle Kendrick in Kendrick's first two at-bats.
Then he served up a fat pitch to Phillies backup third baseman Michael Martinez in the fifth inning that Martinez smacked into the right field stands for a three-run homer with Kendrick on base, dropping the Mets into a four-run hole they never recovered from.
"Unacceptable," Pelfrey said at his locker during in a smoldering, postgame interview that only got even more self-critical after most reporters were gone. He admitted he was angry at himself for "pitching like [expletive]." Referring to the pitch to Martinez, he muttered, "It was supposed to be down and it was up and over the plate. And I give the guy his first major league home run." He beat himself up about Kendrick's two at-bats, too, recounting how "I hung a slider the second time and he almost took my head off. You can't let a pitcher go 2-for-2. A guy we didn't even cover in the pregame talk."
Pelfrey wasn't the only reason the Mets fell, 8-5, to the Phillies at Citi Field. But the way the Mets dropped two out of three games in their first post-All-Star-break series did make all the happy talk about how surprising and gritty the Mets were in the first half of the season seem very long ago and far away. Closer Francisco Rodriguez was already sent packing in a midnight trade Tuesday. And more Mets seem likely to be gone in the coming days.
Just not Pelfrey.
Six seasons into his career, Pelfrey has always been -- and remains -- a very nice man stuck inside an enigmatic pitching career.
And if the Mets had a starting pitching staff even half as settled as the All-Star-laden staff the Phillies had in their dugout Sunday, maybe the trade talk about shipping Pelfrey out of here would make sense.
Instead, what the Mets do have beyond Pelfrey and Jon Niese is a pool of starting pitchers that currently looks like this: Chris Capuano has a history of arm trouble and Johan Santana is still rehabbing from his, 36-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey hasn't been able to consistently recapture his magic from last season and rookie Dillon Gee has somehow been getting people out on his maiden trip or two around the league with a fastball that needs a puff of wind behind it to hit 87 or 88 mph.
So, for better or worse, the Mets seem unlikely to send Pelfrey anywhere any time soon -- a suspicion that Collins unintentionally underscored Sunday, even if was in no mood during the game to wait for the good Pelfrey to snap back into place.
A day after Collins complimented the way Niese -- the closest thing the Mets now have to a staff ace -- battled in the seventh to regain charge of the Mets' win over Philly on Saturday, Collins yanked Pelfrey after just five innings and 85 pitches Sunday, saying, "I didn't want to do it."
He then added this faint praise: "I still think [Pelfrey] has gotta be our guy. He's got a proven track record and he gives you a lot of innings. That's what we need."
So now he's Mike Pelfrey, Innings Eater?
No wonder Pelfrey was dejected as he stood by his locker afterward. The Mets gave him a chance to be their staff ace in Santana's absence; Sunday, he fell to 5-9 with a 4.67 ERA. A closer look at some other stats show he hasn't gotten much run support this year. But even Pelfrey knows that doesn't tell the whole story about what's gone wrong for him.
"Right now," Pelfrey muttered, "It's my command. I'm just not sharp." But it's always something. Pelfrey has been a .500 pitcher for his career. He's never been able to find the consistency he needs to make his occasional brilliance more than a month or two thing.
And even he admits the pattern is getting old.
"I used to come in here and throw my gloves, cleats. Everything. But I don't do that anymore," Pelfrey said.
So how does he get through times like this?
"If I was a young guy who never had any success to fall back on, it would be tough," he admitted. "I'd be searching. But I know I'll get through this. I'll be fine. Because I know I've been through stretches like this before."
The longer Pelfrey talked, though, the more he sounded like someone who is searching, all right. Told that Collins suggested perhaps Pelfrey his tinkering too much with his pitch repertoire -- Collins wondered if by trying to add a cutter, Pelfrey is hurting his three other "plus" pitches -- Pelfrey snorted softly and said, "I"d debate that."
"The part that I have three-plus pitches," Pelfrey answered.
It's not the sort of remark that comes tumbling out of the mouth of a pitcher who's not searching to find himself. Seven years in, Pelfrey is still on that quest.
How long before we just quit waiting for more and admit he is what he is?
For now, that includes being a guy who's liable to go up and down but not out of town anytime soon.
Even if that trade deadline is bearing down on the Mets.
Despite his up-and-down struggles, don't expect Mike Pelfrey to leave the Mets.