True to his word, manager Willie Randolph had gone to the 11th hour before choosing a fifth starter, a seventh reliever and a 25th man. But he was on a roll, so he even decided on a sixth hitter for the first game -- Angel Pagan.
One day before, they send what they hope will be a message of strength to the National League -- a handsome pitching performance by Johan Santana and a victory against the Marlins -- the finally fully defined Mets went through their last dress rehearsal for 2008 in a ballpark that celebrates Dan Marino's career touchdown records more than it does two World Series championships. There's a message in that as well.
Their cast established beforehand, the Mets had their objective restated -- win; their motivation reiterated -- chances to play in the postseason are not in abundant supply, take advantage of this one; and their strategy reinforced -- win series, two of three against the Marlins and Braves would constitute a nice beginning. All with the idea of having their 162-game efforts rewarded.
That Pelfrey and Smith are to be parts of the beginning came as no particular surprise --- except to them, seemingly. After his own mixed-message performance against the Orioles Friday, Pelfrey said El Duque likely would emerge from the Mets' Spring Training camp as the fifth member of the starting rotation. But with Hernandez giving his blessing, the club opted to have Pelfrey start against the Braves on Saturday and to afford Hernandez the time he needs to regain arm strength, pitch precision and confidence in his altered and re-altered delivery.
"Now I have another chance," Pelfrey said. "It's a responsibility I want, a responsibility I can handle."
Smith was so certain he wouldn't win a position on the Opening Day roster -- "I figured it was anybody but me," he said -- he wagered a steak dinner with Sanchez that he wouldn't make it, but that Sanchez would. He lost on both counts, but was pleased by his own success and disappointed that Sanchez wouldn't be in the bullpen with him Monday afternoon.
"I wasn't sure how they were looking at it," Smith said. "I know once they changed my delivery, things started to get better. Each time I went out there, I learned more about it and got better. But I hadn't come to camp like last year, ready to go. I didn't want come in Feb. 14 ready to get people out. I took a little longer. I didn't want to tire out [eventually] like last year."
So the results weren't nearly so eye-catching as they had been last year.
"Of course I was concerned," Smith said. "It was going good. I kept saying all I needed was to get on a roll. I finally got on one."
Yet he didn't get much sleep after the team's 1 a.m. ET arrival from Memphis, Tenn. And Smith didn't know how to react when Randolph summoned him to his office late Sunday morning.
"I wasn't sure he was talking to me," Smith said. "So I just keep walking. Then I heard him say, 'Smitty.' I was pretty sure he meant me. He said he believed in me. ... I didn't say much. He did the talking."
Now Smith does the pitching and the paying. "We'll have the steaks when Duaner gets back," Smith said, "if I'm not the one who goes down when he's ready."
That scenario is a possibility, but a diminished one if Smith performs as he did early last year, and in three of his last four appearances in exhibition games. This spring and last, Sanchez's absence created an opportunity for Smith's sub-sidearm delivery. So paying for the best steak seems like a small price to pay.
"If I'm the one who has to go down when he's ready ... I'd understand that," Smith said. "And if I'm here all year, I can deal with that, too."
Pelfrey won a place in the rotation, for the second straight year, also by default.
"If [Hernandez is] ready," general manager Omar Minaya said, "He's the guy."
But Hernandez himself acknowledged he isn't ready during and after his meeting with Minaya and Randolph.
"It's OK," he said. "It's better for all, better for the team. ... I need more confidence [in my delivery]."
Hernandez said he thought he could pitch now, but that two or three additional starts in the Minor Leagues would be beneficial.
He has been assigned to the disabled list for only the second time since joining the Mets in May 2006. But it is the fourth instance in that period that he is unavailable able to pitch because of a physical malady. No one will be surprised if the current assignment isn't followed by another in the summer.
Although his pitching line against the Orioles on Friday was respectable -- one run in five innings -- scouts weren't convinced El Duque was ready for prime time. Though they saw improvement, they considered it modest and still saw insufficient velocity. Had Pelfrey fared better in his appearance -- he followed El Duque -- the scouts might have scratched their heads more about Hernandez. "Either way," one scout said, "they're taking a chance. But why not take the chance with a younger pitcher?"
Pelfrey is 24. Hernandez is 38, 42 or anywhere in between.
With Hernandez and Moises Alou (41) replaced essentially by Pelfrey and Clark (34), with Smith (24) beating out Stokes (28), the Mets pick up some years. But Casanova, beginning the season as the understudy catcher, is two years older than Ramon Castro, the man he temporarily replaces, and Clark is one year older than Tatis.
But he fits. With Clark, Pagan and Endy Chavez on the roster, the Mets have five outfielders. Damon Easley and Marlon Anderson are likely to see mostly infield and pinch-hitting duty. Tatis has been told he will play everywhere, shortstop included, at Triple-A. So few of these assignments -- perhaps only Chavez, Easley and Anderson -- are even remotely permanent.
"We're pretty sure we won't go through the whole season with the same 25 men," Minaya said. "We need to stay healthy, and we need to develop depth."