It didn't seem that way early on Thursday, when El Duque's struggles with the top of San Francisco's lineup brought lingering worries over his still-tender right shoulder to a boil. But it took just three batters for the right-hander to transform, morphing the game and the series along with it.
And by the time El Duque was done, he had turned in his second straight stellar performance since returning from the disabled list, pitching seven innings of two-hit ball to lead the Mets over the Giants, 4-2, at Shea Stadium.
"He was good again," said catcher Paul Lo Duca. "The first couple of batters, I think, he let up a little bit, and then he bore down after that and he was just dominant."
Dominant enough to dull the piercing worries over center fielder Carlos Beltran, who left the game after a first-inning collision with Giants first baseman Rich Aurilia. Beltran stayed in the game after legging out an infield hit -- eventually coming around to score -- but when the Mets took the field in the top of the second, he wasn't among them, nursing what turned out to be a right knee contusion.
Nothing was going right at that point, not even after the Mets scored two in the first to plug the hole that El Duque had created. Worries over Beltran aside, the Mets still had plenty of concern about their starting pitcher, who seemed agonizingly hittable in the opening inning.
But by the time the second inning rolled around, Hernandez was already in the middle of a transformation that saw him refuse to allow a hit the rest of the way. Just one other Giant reached base -- starting pitcher Matt Cain, on a walk -- and he was quickly erased on a double play.
The shift in results was apparent, even if a shift in method wasn't so clear.
"San Francisco did a good thing, they had a good leadoff to the game," El Duque said. "I didn't change anything."
Lo Duca, however, credited the presence of San Francisco's marquee attraction, Barry Bonds, as reason enough for the turnaround. Bonds was, after all, the first Giant hitter not to put a charge in the ball, instead harmlessly popping to third. And few Giants after him punched the ball with any kind of zip.
"When Barry stepped in the box, [Hernandez] stepped up a little bit," Lo Duca said. "That might have helped him a little bit, because he made a couple of really tough pitches to Barry -- he pitched him tough all night. But he really did bear down after that."
Bonds loomed over the Mets all series, adding his typical extra dimension to San Francisco's lineup. But the Mets handled him as well as they could have hoped, limiting the slugger to a harmless single in six at-bats.
Still, he hovered menacingly, even on Thursday with the Mets cruising. Closer Billy Wagner came in with a two-run lead to shut the door, but he needed a perfect inning to avoid facing Bonds as the potential tying run.
And as much as the lefty yearned to challenge the so-called best hitter in baseball, he took the cautious route of perfection.
"He's got every bit of a right to be worried about me, as I do him," Wagner said. "I enjoy the challenge, but if you go out there looking for trouble, you're probably going to find it."
No Mets pitcher found trouble with Bonds on Thursday -- though with the Giants mustering just three hits off the staff, trouble was certainly hard to find.
Instead, all that trouble rested in the other dugout, as the Mets jumped on San Francisco's flame-throwing righty early. Cain didn't pitch all that badly, but he took one inning longer than El Duque to settle in -- and that became his critical mistake. Run-scoring hits by Beltran and David Wright in the first, and by Jose Reyes and Endy Chavez in the second, proved to be more offense than the Mets would need.
Chavez, in particular, made his presence felt with two hits, his role increasing in importance after Beltran was replaced in the lineup behind him by the light-hitting Carlos Gomez. Chavez created his own brand of chaos with his RBI hit, beating out a bunt single in the second to plate the fourth run.
"That's a big part of his game," said manager Willie Randolph. "He can beat you in many ways. That's another smart play, taking advantage of his skills."
Of course, no Met knows how to better take advantage of his skills than El Duque, who continues to have one of the finest seasons of his career despite the effects of age. Thursday marked the third time this season he has allowed just two hits in an outing, and he's pitched so well this spring that two runs in seven innings was enough to actually raise his ERA, from 2.13 to 2.20.
Any concerns over his balky shoulder have also been whisked away. El Duque threw 95 pitches on Thursday, seven more than in last week's start. And though he told Randolph after the last of those pitches that he was spent, that extra inning signified another tick of endurance for a pitcher who is literally growing stronger every day.
Scary, considering just how strong he's been already.
"Sometimes you've just got to get in your rhythm," Randolph said. "Duque's like that sometimes -- I didn't think he had his real good breaking ball early in the game.
"But once he settled in and got his feel going, he was lights out."
Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.