"The third inning was outstanding," Manuel said after the Mets defeated the Nats, 14-6, on Saturday.
A statement of the obvious perhaps, but it was an accurate assessment of the final inning of Pelfrey's routinely abridged Spring Training debut.
His first inning lasted five batters, produced a run -- unearned -- and ended with a 4-4-3 double play nicely executed by second baseman Jolbert Cabrera.
"Finding yourself a little in your first inning," was Manuel's rationalization.
There was no explaining away the three-run second inning -- five hits, including a three-run home run by Eric Bruntlett, he of the unassisted triple-play infamy last summer.
But the third was 1-2-3.
"A glimpse of what we saw two years ago," Manuel said, recalling Pelfrey's extended run of effective pitching in 2008. "That was the Mike Pelfrey we need."
All in all, it was a menza menza afternoon for Pelfrey. He found positives in his share of the Mets' victory against the Nationals, but the naked-eye observer might have missed them. He hadn't distinguished himself, hadn't made a statement, not that one had been requested. He certainly hadn't asserted himself Saturday as Fernando Martinez had -- four hits, including two solo home runs, and three runs in four at-bats. And had Pelfrey retired nine out of nine batters, what would it have mattered in the first week of March?
But earlier on Saturday, well before the Mets had left Port St. Lucie, Fla., for their afternoon engagement in the former cow pasture, one of Pelfrey's teammates had whispered a challenge: "I'd like to see one of our guys go out and shut someone down, show that he wants to be in the rotation. I mean bury some hitters. Don't be satisfied with getting your work in. It might be a little early, but it wouldn't hurt."
The context of that plea was this: Beginning Saturday, Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine were scheduled to make their first exhibition-game starts. And anyone who has spent 30 minutes in the Mets' headquarters knows the 2010 season probably rests on the three arms of those three gentlemen. The club is confident Johan Santana will be all he has been in his two seasons with the Mets, and that either Jon Niese or Fernando Nieve is capable of serving as the No. 5 starter.
But the Mets have no sense of what they might get from Pelfrey, Perez and Maine. Three men and a maybe.
Perez pitches on Sunday afternoon against the Nationals. Curiosity will fill Tradition Field. He is considered a man on a mission these days. He is more serious and better conditioned than he has been in his three-plus seasons with the Mets. Twice after bullpen sessions last month, Manuel characterized Perez's throwing as, "The best we've seen from him since we got him."
Maine pitches on Monday in Jupiter, Fla., against the Marlins. The Mets' sense of it is that Pelfrey or Perez is capable of giving them more than Maine, but that Maine is more likely to pitch close to his ceiling than either of the others.
And then, Santana makes his spring debut, his first start since his left elbow surgery on Tuesday afternoon against the Astros on MLB.TV.
"Tuesday, on Pay-Per-View," Santana said facetiously.
Chances are the Mets won't know significantly more about the should-be Nos. 2, 3 and 4 starters come Monday night.
"I'm hoping we get more of what we saw today," Manuel said.
Manuel was pleased that Pelfrey "let it go, kept it down and stayed in the strike zone." The runs mattered little, that Pelfrey improved with each inning mattered more, as did his seemingly improved focus. Manuel had spoken with Pelfrey about "staying on the mound, not taking three trips off the dirt."
Focus has been an issue with Perez, not so much at all with Maine. But each of the three has an a obstacle or two to overcome. Three men and a maybe.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.