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Turn Around, Pelfrey

It’s great that Mike Pelfrey turned around his performance from Labor Day when he stunk out Nationals Park [1]. He was, on Saturday at Citi Field, a breath of fresh air, holding the Phillies runless for seven innings. Pelf certainly held his own as long as he could, until the eighth when the Phillies began to nick away in earnest at his 4-0 lead. So Jerry Manuel comes out to get him, one of those few times I’m glad to see Jerry emerge from the dugout. Pelf was clearly done.

Funny thing, I flashed back to the early days of Manuel when everything he did was a breath of fresh air, including insisting the pitcher coming out remain on the mound long enough to greet the pitcher coming in. It was an encouraging sign of teamwork, and as long the 2008 Mets were winning, it seemed substantial. Now and then since then I’ve noticed the removed pitcher not remaining. Saturday I paid attention to the exchange to see if Jerry’s old edict still had legs.

Pelfrey indeed stayed and waited for Bobby Parnell. Hey, I thought, that’s the way to go, that’s the way for a starter to transition to a reliever, that’s the way for the Mets to work together toward a hard-earned win [2]. Yet as I was forming that thought, Tim McCarver pointed out an uncomfortable truth.

Mike Pelfrey stood on the mound during the entire pitching change interlude with his back to Jerry Manuel. And when Parnell arrived at the mound, the ball was transferred to Bobby’s glove not by Jerry, but by Mike. All told, it constituted a breach of baseball “etiquette,” according to Tim.

If you want to talk etiquette, being left to listen to Tim McCarver and talking mannequin Matt Vasgersian for nine innings goes against the courtesy television networks used to show its viewers on Saturday afternoons. We used to be handed our baseball by the likes of Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek, Vin Scully, Bob Costas (before his sanctimony gland exploded) and Sean McDonough. They were all class acts in their time, just as Tim McCarver ruled the airwaves in his time…which has mostly passed. Fox’s booth is a nightmare in broad daylight no matter who’s manning it on a given Saturday, and our old pal Timmy isn’t helping. McCarver long ago lost his analytical fastball and, unlike Tom Seaver in his White Sox days, doesn’t deliver much on just guts and guile.

But once in a while, Timmy can rear back and fire a most astute observation like he used to with aplomb, back when he was all-world on local and national broadcasts. In this case, in the eighth inning, he threw a perfect strike when he noticed and articulated the scene on the mound.

Just what the fudge was Mike Pelfrey doing out there with his back to Jerry Manuel?

Soon enough Mets ownership will turn its back on Jerry Manuel. His contract will expire and there will be no earthly reason to offer him another one. The fresh air from the summer of ’08 long ago went stale. Jerry manages without a clue almost every game — and before every game. Take the latest trend in lineups, the one that has made everyday staples of Lucas Duda and Luis Hernandez.

Duda is plainly overmatched at this stage of his nascent career. An .036 average speaks softly and indicates the kid has yet to carry any kind of stick. Still, if your goal is to size Duda up, well, OK, go ahead and get his measure (bring lots of tape). You’ve got Nick Evans sitting around most games until the sixth inning, but if you’ve made up your mind that Nick is yesterday’s news and Lucas is potentially an essential part of your future, what the hell, it’s September, we’re 11½ out with 20 to play…sure, go with Duda.

Sayeth Jerry [3], “I still believe he’s going to be a good hitter. It’s a matter of him getting a couple of hits in one game. I will try to find what I think are good matchups for him, but in the National League East it’s tough.”

But then how do you explain the sudden prevalence of Luis Hernandez? He could be the utility infielder of 2011…maybe. At first glance, he doesn’t seem all that uninterchangeable with — to use recent examples — Ramon Martinez or Wilson Valdez (the one we had, not the superstar Wilson Valdez on the Phillies) or Anderson Hernandez or Justin Turner or Joaquin Arias or whoever can be picked up at a moment’s notice. Still, he’s hit the ball well and he’s caught the ball well. Not much of a baserunner, judging by his getting himself doubled off second on a short pop to the outfield, but we all make mistakes. Somebody needs to scout Luis Hernandez a little…sure, play Hernandez.

Yet Jerry Manuel’s reasoning [4] for wanting to trot this heretofore unknown quantity out to the infield day after day is Luis Hernandez gives the Mets a chance to win: “If we think we have people that are playing well, we’ve still got to try to win games. With some of the things we lack offensively, Hernandez gives us a good shot offensively.”

Ruben Tejada, your 20-year-old second baseman through the part of the season when the team was playing its best, won’t get the benefit of the extra reps provided by playing out the string. He had started to hit a bit before Hernandez showed up and became the latest object of Manuel’s fickle affections. Ruben may not be the ultimate answer at second (though I think he could be), yet he seems a more viable candidate to fill a key role on the 2011 Mets than Luis Hernandez does.

Who do you want seeing more major league pitching while there’s still time and nothing of great significance on the table in terms of standings: Luis Hernandez or Ruben Tejada? (Wow, what a question for this season to come down to.) If your answer is Hernandez and your reason is you perceive him capable of getting a few more hits than Tejada, then why grind Duda and his .036 down to the nub? Why not try a shot of Evans or Jesus Feliciano in left for a few consecutive games? I don’t know that either of those guys is your key to winning in the next three weeks, but is Duda? And, though I’d like the Mets to finish over .500, does it really matter?

Jerry’s mind turned his back on us long before we turned our collective back on him. He will deserve to go when the time comes, about ten minutes after the final out of the 162nd game of the year…no question, as the man himself likes to say.

But the man also deserves to be looked in the eye by his starting pitcher when he comes to the mound to remove him. I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes with Jerry Manuel and Mike Pelfrey — or in the head of Mike Pelfrey — but standing with his back to his manager in front of 35,000 fans and however many of us were watching on television…you don’t do that. You just don’t. I don’t care if Pelf was mad about being taken out of the game or is mad about Manuel calling him an enigma (which is a good word for it) or has issues over how the team is run. I don’t care that he knows there will be no long-term repercussions since Jerry is out of the manager’s office by no later than sundown October 3.

That was a passive-aggressive little hissyfit pulled by Pelfrey and it was uncalled for. In the realm of things I can only divine from a distance, it made me madder at Pelf than I was at the so-called treacherous three who didn’t visit Walter Reed the other day. Draw your own conclusions on that invented scandal, but that hospital trip was framed explicitly as a voluntary goodwill mission. Goodwill ideally should have been expended by all considering what Walter Reed is for and who is laid up in there, and a team ideally should act as a team in those situations (pending foundation meetings, et al), but it’s quite clear it wasn’t a mandatory expedition.

It is mandatory that you show your manager basic respect on the mound when he comes to get you. You face him and you hand him the ball. That’s not off-field stuff. That’s part and parcel of your business. Sulk in the dugout or beat up a Gatorade cooler or stuff a towel in your mouth after you take your leave. Throw your hissyfit in the runway or the clubhouse. There are ways and there are ways to do things. There is, per Tim McCarver as well as common sense, etiquette.

Mike Pelfrey pitched a good ballgame Saturday. He’s going to have to pitch more of them, whoever’s managing him next year. A lot will be piled onto that big back of his with Johan Santana recovering from shoulder surgery. Any day’s starter is the ace of the staff in my view, but it’s Pelf who stands to be first among aces come April. An ace wants to compete and not come out of a game and is prone to fuming with frustration when he can’t finish what he started, but an ace also does the right thing. Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Al Leiter, Johan Santana…I don’t remember seeing any of them show such blatant disrespect to their manager, whoever managed them. I don’t remember seeing it from Oliver Perez, for crissake.

C’mon Pelf. Be as Big as we always say you are.