Not so long ago, Mike Pelfrey making it through the fifth inning would have been worthy of somewhat grudging attaboys. The Kansas righty had size, stuff, a first-round pedigree and the most-famous visible tongue this side of Gene Simmons, but he rarely had results. It felt like you could diagram most Pelfrey starts: He'd show flashes, particularly with that evil sinking fastball of his, but quickly have trouble hitting his spots with his change and curveball, leading him to sideline the secondary pitches and try to get by with just the fastball, which would lead to an eruption of walks and hits and an early exit. And looming over all that was that prospect pedigree, which has been more blessing than curse for some time around here — recall, if you dare, the dull semi-parade that's featured the likes of Dave Mlicki, Jay Payton, Grant Roberts, Terrence Long, Pat Strange and Victor Diaz, to name just a few who arrived much celebrated and departed barely noticed. Sure, you have David Wright and Jose Reyes (and thank goodness), but given our underwhelming farm production of the last decade or so, a Met fan can be forgiven for wondering not what went wrong with the other guys, but what possibly could have gone right with those two.
But to the very short list of prospect success stories, perhaps we can now add Mike Pelfrey.
What happened? Maybe it's that Dan Warthen believes a curveball complements a fastball in a way that's nothing like ketchup and ice cream. Certainly you don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Big Pelf seems a lot more comfortable under the Manuel/Warthen regime than he did during the Peterson/Randolph reign. When Willie came back to his California hotel room to find Omar waiting, Pelfrey had just beaten the Angels in singularly unimpressive fashion, allowing six earned runs over six innings to improve to 3-6 with a 4.62 ERA. Since then, he's 9-2 with an ERA of 3.12.
But I'm a little suspicious of that, perhaps just because as studious fans we eat these stories up — the “A-ha!” moment from the new coach is the baseball equivalent of the heroic prosecutor extracting a witness-stand confession from the bad guy in a courtroom drama. It might just be that Pelfrey came to the big leagues at 22, with very little in the way of minor-league experience, and had to absorb a fair number of the knockings-around that are a pitcher's life lessons. (Whether absorbing those beatings in brutally public fashion was good for him or not is another question.)
Whatever the case, tonight was one to celebrate. The Mets staked Pelfrey to a 5-0 lead courtesy of the wonderful Daniel Murphy and the horrible Atlanta Braves infield (though thankfully, fill-in first baseman Greg Norton was OK on a play that looked uncomfortably like Todd Hundley bearing down on Cliff Floyd's exposed forearm), then did their usual Metsian offensive snooze, letting the Braves creep back into view. In the sixth, up 6-1, Pelfrey gave up a bunt single to Gregor Blanco, then walked Yunel Escobar and Chipper to bring up Brian McCann with the bases loaded and none out. Three months ago, we all would have waited for Pelfrey to crumble; tonight, you felt like he'd find his way out of it — and one nifty double play from a cool-headed Argenis Reyes, he more or less had. That led him to the ninth and a 3-0 count on Larry Wayne, our old enemy now reduced to a figurehead. Again, one might have expected to peek ahead in the script and find a Chipper double or home run and Pelf trudging off the mound to be replaced by one arsonist or another. But no: Three pitches later, it was Chipper trudging away.
The worries about Pelfrey in September will likely concern his passage into uncharted territory innings-wise. That's not to be laughed off, not if these Mets wind up with October dates on their calendar after all. But look how far Mike Pelfrey's come. Too many innings? He and we should have such problems.