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Humber Time

There’s something magical about the first Major League start by a highly touted pitcher, particularly a highly touted Mets pitcher. He could be our next Seaver…our next Gooden [1]…our next ace. News that a hot young arm is going to start a game for the first time in his big league career is undeniably exciting news.

I sure hope this is the right time of this season for that kind of news.

I’m not going to reflexively argue against using Philip Humber in the fifth-to-last game of the season even if the season is still very much up for grabs. Humber is highly touted because he is highly talented. Better yet, he’s highly healthy, which is more than can be said for Orlando Hernandez.

Not incidentally, Humber’s highly here. The only other potential candidate for this otherwise orphaned turn in the rotation (on a staff that numbers 18 active pitchers) was Dave Williams, who posted a few impressive starts in 2006 before the herniated disc in his neck got the best of him. Judging by his two 2007 cameos, he’s not fully recovered.

So Humber it is. At 24 and with four Met mopup appearances over two callups to his credit, he’s making his first start and he’s doing it when nothing less than solid will be an acceptable result. Nobody likes to grade first starts on anything less than a steep curve, but September 26 with a two-game lead collapses the curve. Humber has to not just worry about getting over his curve (it’s considered a very sharp one), but he must pitch like the first-round draft pick he was out of Rice, the Triple-A ace he became after Tommy John surgery, the top prospect we’ve been told he is right now. He has to do it right away, not against the Baylor Bears, not against the Nashville Sounds, but against the Washington Nationals. He has to not let Ryan Zimmerman or Austin Kearns or Ronnie Belliard or any of them beat him.

It’s something Mike Pelfrey, who’s made 16 big league starts, didn’t do Monday.

It’s something John Maine, who’s made 55 big league starts, didn’t do last Tuesday.

It’s something Brian Lawrence, who’s made 152 big league starts, didn’t do the night before that.

It’s something Tom Glavine, who’s made 668 big league starts, didn’t do last night.

Experience is apparently no prerequisite for pitching well against the Nationals, because it didn’t help any of those guys.

Still…first start…final week…high stakes…I’m thinking this, like so much else about this team this month, is not an ideal situation, particularly for a starter’s debut — regardless of touting. If he comes through and helps us gather in the monster pot that’s been lingering on the National League East table a little too long, then we will have reason to believe we have a keeper on our hands. If he doesn’t, Philip Humber’s long-term future will be pretty low on my worry list.

I can’t shake visions of other first starts at non-optimal junctures. The first one that pops to mind is Julio Valera, chosen by Buddy Harrelson to supplant Ron Darling at the beginning of September 1990. Valera was a Tidewater stud and Darling was maddeningly inconsistent. Valera would look OK his first turn (6 IP, 3 ER) and win. Five days later, he would get the call over Darling for a crucial showdown against the Pirates and be dreadful (2 IP, 4 ER on 8 H). It was one more shaky start and out for Valera from there. Julio didn’t cost the 1990 Mets the division, but he sure as hell didn’t help.

The other first start by a noted rookie in a pennant race I can remember is Craig Swan’s, against the Phillies in September of ’73. He was called on by Yogi Berra to pitch the nightcap of a Labor Day doubleheader (go ask your grandparents what one of those was). Swan did not pitch well: 4.1 IP, 4 ER, 9 H. The Mets didn’t win his debut. Said M. Donald Grant in the wake of his loss, “Send the fat kid back to Tidewater.” Unlike Valera, Swannie had a more-than-representative Mets tenure, albeit without any more real pennant race opportunities for the rest of his career.

Valera was 21. Swan was 22. Humber is 24. Plus Philip was around the team last September and, unlike his predecessors in pressurized situations, isn’t making his first ML appearance. But he’s also starting his first game far later in the schedule than Valera (9/1/90) and Swan (9/3/73) did. Whatever they did, there was still plenty of time left on the Mets’ side. After Philip Humber starts, there will be all of four games remaining in this regular season.

Nothing necessarily bodes anything about anything, but it sure feels awfully late for somebody who’s so early. As we can say about any scenario in baseball but as is most apropos when it comes to a pitcher making his first start, we’ll see what happens.

The subject of first starts by highly touted pitchers inevitably leads me back to the patron saints of Mets pitching prospects, Generation K. I was recently reminded of them even before Humber crossed the radar, a few Sundays ago, when their leading edge, Bill Pulsipher, reappeared with the Long Island Ducks and Jeff Gold of Newsday [2] caught up with him.

Geez, I thought, Pulsipher’s a Duck again [3]? Hasn’t he been a Duck already? Hasn’t he been everything already?

Pulse is still pitching?

Bill Pulsipher’s first Major League start, on June 17, 1995, is iconic in these parts. It was the occasion that provided the impetus for the two bloggers you know as Greg [4] and Jason [5] to meet in person and take in their first game. It was a winning debut for both of us, if not Pulsipher himself: seven earned runs in seven manager-mandated innings.

Jason Isringhausen would be up about a month later, a righty who was supposed to be even better than his pal the lefty. By the spring of ’96, they’d be joined and presumably topped by the cream of the Mets pitching crop, Paul Wilson, the No. 1 pick in the nation in the summer of ’94. Izzy. Pulse. Paul. The first Internet acronym I ever used regularly was not BTW or ROFL or LMAO. It was IPP.

It would be perfectly understandable if you were to LYAO at the notion that IPP were going to set the world on fire or at least anchor the Mets’ rotation for the balance of the 1990s and into the next millennium. For myriad reasons [6], none developed as Mets. Among them, they started 98 games as Mets. None was with us beyond 2000. The trio wasn’t even technically a trio for a single gameday; Pulsipher was injured during Wilson’s first Spring Training. By the time he pitched for the Mets again, the other two were out. When he briefly returned from exile after that, Isringhausen was gone and Wilson was going.

If the Cardinals are holding a lead in the ninth inning on Thursday (heaven forefend), we’ll reacquaint ourselves with Jason Isringhausen. Of the three baby starters of yore, he was the only one who would find lasting big league success, albeit as a closer and not as a Met. Paul Wilson persevered after injuries cost him what should have been his prime development years, grinding out a respectable if mostly losing career with the Devil Rays and Reds through 2005. And Pulse never quits. He started 2007 with Leones de Yucatan in the Mexican League and alighted in Central Islip for his Long Island encore at the end of August. He wound up 2-0 in four starts as the Ducks flew toward the playoffs.

Pulse is 33. Paul is 34. Izzy just turned 35. They have yet to lead the Mets to a world championship. They probably won’t.

In the final episode of perhaps my favorite television drama ever, Six Feet Under, David Fisher asks his mother, “Why do we so desperately cling to the past?” Ruth Fisher, despondent as all get out, responds, “Because that was when we had hope.” That’s the only reason I can imagine I still dwell, when given the opportunity, on Izzy, Pulse and Paul. Their statistical accomplishments added up to fewer than 100 Mets starts and a lot of broken dreams. Every dispatch from Triple-A in 1995 infused us with hope. That the hope amounted to not even a pitcher’s mound of beans is almost besides the point a dozen years later.

Our record, despite the battering its taken recently, is in far better shape at the end of 2007 than it was at the end of 1995. Now is indisputably better than then to be a Mets fan. Yet I was somehow far more hopeful about the Mets then than I am now. Contending is better than dreaming of contending. I understand that. But the way-out-of-it Mets made me smile more at the end of 1995 than the first-place Mets are inspiring me to at the end of 2007.

Generation K is recalled as one of the biggest disappointments in Mets history, yet I still feel a warm little tickle thinking about those three arms in their larval phase, constituting the building blocks of the first legitimate shot at a bright Met future in years. Your mindset is so different when all you’re hoping for is hope.

I can still see each pitcher wearing his cap pulled almost down to his eyebrows.

I can see Pulse and Izzy giggling like schoolboys on Dallas Green’s bench as ’95 begins to turn around a little and they’re two of the key reasons why.

I can see them and Wilson — Paul with a beard — staring out at me from the cover of USA Today Baseball Weekly the following Spring Training, hyped and headlined as the Next Big Thing.

Sometimes I hear Ace Frehley and I think of them. I directed a video in my mind that was going to be the theme of the 1996 season. With these three pitchers leading the way (and wicked ladies sittin’ by their side sayin’ “where are we?”), there was no doubt the Mets would be back!…back in the New York groove.

Just you wait, I told myself. It’s gonna happen.

It’s not just a long season, you know. It’s a long life if you’re a fan. Even if you do see something every day that you haven’t seen before, you’ve kind of seen it all after a while. Then you kind of see it over and over again. You get so immersed in arguing for or against the deployment of one pitcher or another that you might not notice the entire rotation, the entire staff, the entire roster has turned over again and again without your realizing it. It seems about twelve minutes ago, not twelve years, that we just had to bring up Pulsipher, that we just had to bring up Isringhausen, that we just had to bring up Wilson.

There’s something magical about the first Major League start by a highly touted pitcher. Julio Valera be damned: this is the time for that kind of magic.