Commentary

Mike Pelfrey embraces ace's place

Righty gets ready for Opening Day nod, Mets' No. 1 spot in Santana's absence

Updated: February 22, 2011, 7:23 AM ET
By Adam Rubin | ESPNNewYork.com

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- After Roy Halladay had joined the Philadelphia Phillies, Johan Santana was playfully asked last spring training who now held the title as the National League East's top ace.

"In our division?" the New York Mets left-hander rhetorically asked. "Santana."

Well, fast-forward to this spring training and Santana is recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder. And Halladay is coming off a 21-win season and is welcoming Cliff Lee to a Phillies rotation that also includes Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

[+] EnlargePelfrey
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireThe Mets will need a lot from Mike Pelfrey (from left) and Chris Young this season with Johan Santana shelved for half the season after shoulder surgery.

"One through five, when you lose a guy like that, everybody has to step up," said Mike Pelfrey, who assumes the ace tag in Santana's absence. "I don't think just one guy can replace him. We all need to step up and almost bring it to another level. But he's still going to be missed. He's the true ace and has been a Cy Young Award winner and all that."

If Pelfrey can duplicate his 9-1 start from last season, if Chris Young and Chris Capuano can rediscover their pre-surgery forms, and if R.A. Dickey can duplicate last season's career revival, the Mets can hang in the wild-card race until Santana -- a lesser Santana, perhaps -- returns for the second half. (Yes, that's a lot of ifs.)

Is Pelfrey up to the task of duplicating last season's 9-1 start?

"I think I can do it," said Pelfrey, whose wife gave birth to the couple's second child, Madison Caroline, on Feb. 4. "I don't know if it's asking too much to do it. I feel like I'm kind of streaky. That goes with everything I do. And if I got on a roll, we can go with it."

Pelfrey was making appearances on behalf of the Mets last month when Terry Collins called the right-hander into the manager's office at Citi Field.

"He said, 'Hey, you're going to get the ball on Opening Day. You deserve it. You should have made the All-Star team last year,'" Pelfrey recalled. "He asked me if I wanted that. I said, 'Yeah, I want it. I definitely want it.' It's a pretty good opportunity, and hopefully I'm going to take advantage of it."

Of course, starting on Opening Day on April 1 in Miami likely means drawing Florida Marlins ace Josh Johnson. Pelfrey then may very well draw Halladay in the Mets' sixth game of the season, at Citizens Bank Park.

"I might start off 0-for-6 at the plate," Pelfrey quipped. "It is what it is. If you look back at last year, they have losses too. I'm going to go out there and try to throw up zeroes. With our offense, we should put up a lot of runs. I don't care who is on the other side on the mound, we should put up a lot of runs."

One thing is clear: Pelfrey's spring numbers, which he will start accumulating next Monday when he faces the Washington Nationals in his first Grapefruit League start, probably won't be a valid indicator of whether he is up to the task. Before that 9-1 start last season, Pelfrey had a 6.15 ERA and allowed eight homers in 26 1/3 exhibition innings.

"My big thing when spring training is over is as long as I feel good and I feel like the ball is coming out of my hand good, then I don't worry about anything else," Pelfrey said. "I wasn't worried. The whole thing is it comes down to in spring training that I don't want to walk a lot of guys. So when it gets 0-2 or whatever, I'm not wasting pitches. I'm still throwing strikes, where in the season I would try to get a chase or something like that. Spring training I try not to walk anybody. I throw the ball down the middle if I have to. I'm trying to get my work in."

Pelfrey, for his part, did downplay the actual importance of the Opening Day assignment, as Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Santana similarly have done before him.

"It doesn't necessarily matter," he said. "If you're one of the five guys, the only time that it matters is the first game. After that, whoever starts the second game, hey, you're the ace for that day."

Adam Rubin has covered the Mets since 2003. He's a graduate of Mepham High School on Long Island and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined ESPNNewYork after spending 10 years at the New York Daily News.
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