Pelfrey getting ready for 'crunch time'

Pelfrey getting ready for 'crunch time'

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- When the Mets' exhibition season equipment is put away next weekend, the first ball to be stuffed into a bag and then covered by dozens more ought to be the four-seam fastball Mike Pelfrey has thrown in his two most recent starts. That is, if it can be found. Pelfrey's four-seamer may still be rolling beyond the fences of newly-named Digital Domain Park.

Put it with old, scuffed baseballs, ones that can be used for Class A batting practice in the summer, put it with -- or better yet -- in mothballs. At the very least, put it where it can't be found by National League batters. They have come to recognize it rather readily of late. It is bigger than your average baseball, it has wings and it likes to travel.

Chances are Pelfrey will be the one to decommission the four-seamer. He knows how it has misbehaved recently; he knows the damage it's done. And he knows it's fraternal twin brother, two-seamer, behaves and has an abiding affection for the bottom of bottom of bats. Or, as he said Sunday, "When crunch time comes, I put the [four-seamer] in my pocket. The two-seamer is all I'll throw."

Then, as a public service reminder, Pelfrey added, "Spring Training ain't crunch time."

So for all those who were left trembling Sunday after Pelfrey surrendered three more home runs, reexamine his performance through the "it ain't crunch time" prism. No worries, no concern and no sweat.

"Actually I feel pretty good about the way I pitched," he said.

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Understand, please, that the Mets' No. 2 starter was providing this self-critique after he had allowed 12 hits and six runs in 5 2/3 innings of what became a 10-5 Mets loss to the Cardinals. He wasn't speaking in the abstract. St. Louis' long ball bats, those belonging to Albert Pujols, Colby Rasmus and Ryan Ludwick, hit baseballs to the great beyond. Pelfrey had allowed four home runs -- three wind blown -- in 4 2/3 innings in his previous start.

The Cardinals produced three hits in the first two innings, but two were the ground ball variety, the kind more consistent with the pitcher's resume. Pelfrey threw two-seamers and the splitter he now embraces as his primary offspeed pitch.

"He changed to four-seamers after that," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "Probably not a good idea."

By the time his pitching coach explained, Pelfrey already had testified in his own belhalf. "I'm so pleased with secondary pitches," Pelfrey said, "I thought I'll work on my four-seamer. Not because I'm going to throw it a lot, but just so I can make it better ... much better. You know, I'm gonna face these guys pretty early [the Mets and Cardinals are to play three games April 16-18.] I don't want to give away any secrets now."

The Mets abide by that sort of thinking. Before they decided Johan Santana would make his final training camp start Tuesday, they had decided he wouldn't face the Marlins, his Opening Day opponent, Monday.

Pelfrey, who now has pitched 20 1/3 innings in five starts, was pleased by other aspects of his performance. He threw 104 pitches and experienced no fatigue. More important, he walked none of his 28 batters. Manager Jerry Manuel tried to explain away the 12 hits Pelfrey surrendered, mentioning the wind and even the hard-baked fields.

Evidently the infields are softer when the Mets bat. They had 10 hits, to the Cardinals' 19, and none came in five at-bats with runners in scoring position. The Mets have 10 hits in the past 60 at-bats in those situations.

But it's March, and as someone once said, "Spring Training ain't crunch time."

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