Hernandez looks ready for next stage

El Duque pitches Mets past Dodgers

NEW YORK -- Instances may develop Sunday afternoon when Steve Trachsel mutates, when he becomes a different pitcher for one pitch, one batter or -- who knows? -- maybe one inning. Madcap Steve Trachsel may throw a sequence of breaking balls he never has thrown or a pitch with a two-strike count that is altogether uncharacteristic for him.

Truth be told, he already has had some chameleon moments. It's September, and the Mets begin selling playoffs tickets on Tuesday. It's not time to tinker, but time to prepare.

"I've already tried some things I've never done before," Trachsel said Saturday.

For him -- his place in the Mets' postseason plans undefined and perhaps unavailable -- and those who essentially are assured of a postseason assignment, this month is a tad peculiar. Winning is preferred of course, but hardly essential. Preparation is the objective -- whatever it takes to be ready for Octoberquest.

"When you're going to be in it," Tom Glavine said, "you prepare almost like you do in Spring Training. You get a little selfish. Your focus is on 'me getting right.' It's just like Spring Training in that regard."

So it was for Orlando Hernandez on Saturday afternoon, when he made his second September start. Not that he betrayed his team -- effective pitching and team success have been known to coexist. And they did in the Mets' 3-2 victory against the Dodgers.

The Mets were merely taking another stride toward the inevitable clinching of the National League East. Their 17th victory in 22 games -- combined with the Phillies' loss to the Marlins on Saturday night -- reduced their magic number to five.

El Duque's work had a greater purpose and greater urgency. He was polishing the tools he intends to use when the Mets play their next set of critical games.

His tools appeared sharp and shiny, primed for precision. Hernandez threw seven innings against the team that still led the league in on-base and batting averages when the day began and allowed four hits, a walk and two runs, one unearned. He earned his 10th victory -- the eighth in 17 starts with the Mets -- and a one-word accolade from his manager: "Superb."

And after he made his second post-R&R start, he proclaimed himself ready for the part of the season in which he always has prospered.

"He knows his time of year is coming," Paul Lo Duca said. "You know he's getting where he knows he needs to be. He smells it now."

"I think I'm feeling good," El Duque said. "I'm ready for the next start and the next start."

He repeated Willie Randolph's mantra -- 'It's still too early." But as he spoke, it was later than ever.

"In Atlanta, the years we had big leads," Glavine said, "the focus was to get where you had to be -- whatever it took. Whether it was a certain look to your pitches or the way your ball moved, you worked at it in games, and -- you still wanted to win -- but that was secondary to being ready, to having your rhythm and that [mental] slot.

"I'm sure Duque did that with the Yankees. You work on what you need to get right."

To some degree, the responsibility of winning is left for the others. Those who stepped forward and assumed that responsibility Saturday were, in chronological order, Carlos Delgado, David Wright, Aaron Heilman and Billy Wagner.

Delgado hit his 37th home run, against Greg Maddux, leading off the second inning. Wright's single in the sixth off Brett Tomko, his third hit of the day, drove in two runs. Heilman pitched another clean eighth inning, and Wagner earned his 36th save, the 26th and 27th outs coming on a strike 'em out, throw 'em out double play.

So now the Mets have beaten the Dodgers four times in six games, won 23 of 32 games against the division the Dodgers still lead and eight of their last nine games against first-place opponents. The victory was their 29th in 43 one-run games and their 17th in 24 Saturday games (their best daily record).

What is left for them aside from preparation and -- probably this week -- celebration?

Randolph wouldn't have been upset if his starter had pitched into the eighth, but El Duque, his pitch count at 91, approached the manager in the dugout after seven and ran his index finger across his throat as if to say "cut."

Wagner could have thrown a clean ninth. But why pick nits? The Mets might have made more of Jose Reyes' leadoff double and one-out steal of third in the eighth and given Wagner a greater margin for error. But why be a picker of nits? Delgado could have hit three home runs -- he hit two other deep balls that would have been out in some other ballparks. But one was enough, especially when his warning-track fly ball in the sixth was so well struck that Jose Valentin and Carlos Beltran tagged up and gave Wright two runners in scoring position before his at-bat against Tomko.

"We're doing OK," Trachsel said. "Where we are is exactly where you want to be in September. I've had more than a few years when [in] your last starts, you were just trying to finish up strong, pretty much for next year. Not us this year."

For the Mets, it's wait till next month.


Valentin, who hadn't played an inning at second base since 1994, played his 59th consecutive errorless game. His streak is the longest by a National League second baseman this season and the longest by a Mets second baseman since 1999, when Edgardo Alfonzo had a streak of 75 errorless games. ... Wagner has converted his last 13 save opportunities and allowed no runs in his last 15 innings. His career save total now is 320. He and Jose Mesa are tied for 12th place on the all-time list. Troy Percival is 11th with 324, and Roberto Hernandez, pretty much out of the save business, is 10th with 326.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.