If the Mets are to win next season, Pelfrey must lead them. He mustn't, that is, do what he did Wednesday in a 4-1 loss to the Braves.
Coming off four splendid starts in which he allowed a total of four runs, Pelfrey allowed that same number Wednesday at Turner Field -- two in the first inning, two in the second. So on a day when the Mets greeted prospects Jenrry Mejia and Lucas Duda at Turner Field, in a game that provided the Mets with a glimpse into their future, Pelfrey gave them reason for pause.
"They really jumped him early," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said of the Braves.
Pelfrey's main troubles Wednesday occurred over the first two innings, in which he allowed a two-run double to Martin Prado, an RBI single to Omar Infante and a run-scoring single to Jason Heyward, who finished 4-for-4.
It did not help, of course, that the Mets could barely touch Braves starter Tommy Hanson, who did not allow a hit over the first three innings. Though David Wright doubled with one out in the fourth to end that streak, Hanson retired the next 11 batters -- his final 11, as it turned out -- in a row.
"We executed," Hanson said. "We hit, put some runs up and played good defense. So overall, it was a good day for us."
"This team, from top to bottom, when you look at everything -- the bullpen, the starting rotation -- they are a very good ballclub," Pelfrey said. "When I made mistakes, which I made a lot of them, they made me pay for them."
And so the Mets dropped to three games under .500 for the first time since May 21, while falling a season-high 13 games out of first place.
The one seemingly secure aspect of the 2011 Mets is their rotation. Johan Santana, Pelfrey, Jon Niese, R.A. Dickey and Mejia all remain under team control for next season. Proceeding with such a group would provide the Mets with an enviable mix of solid veterans and promising youngsters.
Pelfrey, though, fits into neither the former category nor the latter. He is still young enough to improve, of course, still young enough to impress -- perhaps even young enough to fulfill his once-considerable potential. But Pelfrey has also grown old enough that questions have been bubbling to the surface for quite some time.
To answer them, Pelfrey must pitch consistently well down the stretch, giving the Mets the same hope for next year that he gave them back in 2008 -- when he dominated over the final month of the season.
"It's important," Pelfrey said. "Obviously, I have to execute pitches. That's the name of the game. And I didn't execute very many pitches tonight. That's a good team over there, and every time I missed over the middle of the plate, they made me pay for it."
Because Pelfrey, on this night, could not contribute to their hope for the future, the Mets instead turned to Duda, somewhat of a surprise callup from Triple-A Buffalo. Though Duda finished 0-for-3 in his Major League debut and was forced to leave in the eighth due to hamstring cramps, he impressed the Mets with his prowess in left field -- particularly on a terrific catch in foul ground that helped quell a Braves rally in the first.
That certainly gave the Mets reason to pause, considering that Duda -- who described his Major League debut as "equally nervous and excited" -- has struggled at times in his transition from first baseman to left fielder.
"He moved extremely well," Manuel said. "I am really looking forward to watching him the rest of these games.
"Just from what I observed today as a defensive player in the game, and from what I observed today in batting practice, I think you're going to find a place for this young man to play here at the Major Leagues next year. I hope I'm right, because he looks like a type of guy that can produce runs, and I think that's something that's lacking here."
Right now, the Mets will settle simply for hits. They recorded just one off Hanson, before rapping out their second and final hit -- an RBI single by Luis Hernandez -- off Jonny Venters in the eighth.
"We're struggling," Manuel said. "We've struggled all year offensively, especially the second half. We haven't found an offense that has clicked."