Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Gnats walk all over Pelfrey

In one of the biggest games of the season, the Mets started a 23-year-old rookie right-hander who's lost more than twice as many as he's won, Mike Pelfrey.

When I read that Pelfrey would start, I was suspicious. Though he hasn't had a winning rookie season, he's done fairly well against the Nats. But to throw him into the fire in the heat of the pennant race points to the weakness in the Mets starting rotation, a weakness strengthened by El Duque's difficulties in recovering from a bunion that's sidelined him for more than 10 days and caused his right foot to be placed in a boot.

Usually, doctors boot a foot that's broken. But a bunion?

But that's what happens when a team overloads a roster with players aged 40 and above. This season the Mets have had more 40+ players on their roster than any team in major league history. That doesn't mean that a player in his forties can't play; but, as Hernandez and Alou have shown, they do break down more often and take longer to recover.

Age, however, didn't cause yesterday's loss. Mets starter Mike Pelfrey's only 23.

Pelfrey faced a Nats team that wanted to win more than the Mets did. In the previous three-game series against the Nationals last week in Washington, the Mets struggled to win one game.

What probably motivated the Mets' powers-that-be to start Pelfrey was that, after losing his first seven decisions, he pitched better in his last three. He won all three with a 3.31 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 16.1 innings. He also was the pitcher of record in the Mets only victory against the Nats last week in which he allowed three runs and nine hits in five innings.

Nine hits. Five innings. Pennant race. Those numbers don't work well together.

Yesterday was Pelfrey's third home start against the Nats. And until yesterday, he hadn't lost to the Nats.

In his first home start against the Nats, which should be spelled Gnats given how they've been playing lately against the Mets, on April 13, a Friday, the Mets beat them 3-2. Though Pelfrey didn't pick up the win, in 5.2 innings he limited them to six hits and two runs. On the negative side, he walked four Nats and threw 97 pitches. When he was pulled from the game in the sixth, the Mets were down 2-1.

In his second home start against the Nats on July 28, a game the Mets lost 6-5, Pelfrey pitched well enough to win and didn't get the loss. In six innings he gave up eight hits, only one walk, and three runs. However, he threw 104 pitches. When Easley pinch-hit for him to start the bottom of the sixth, the Mets were down 3-0; however, they tied the game on Delgado's two-run home run.

Thus, in his first two starts against the Nats, both at Shea, Pelfrey limited them to five runs and 14 hits in 11-2/3 innings.

Yesterday, however, was his unlucky day. Not only was it his first loss to the Nats, they also scored 13 runs. Pelfrey pitched for just five-plus innings and only gave up five hits, but he also walked five batters. Did the tension of starting in such a pressure game get to him? Seven runs crossed the plate during his time on the mound.

The fifth inning was Pelfrey's worst. After walking two batters, Austin Kearns clobbered Pelfrey's fourth pitch for a three-run homer. Manager Willie Randolph's explanation of Pelfrey's fifth-inning meltdown: “All of a sudden he lost his concentration or something, and it got ugly fast.”

The Nats scored the final six runs in the last two innings off Guillermo Mota and Dave Williams. In Mota's inning of work, he surrendered three runs on three hits and a walk. Not quality pitching. In Williams' solo inning, he gave up three runs on two hits, including a home run, and a walk. However, the bullpen can't be blamed for the loss. Even if the four relievers the Mets used in yesterday's game had held the Nats scoreless in their 3.1 innings of work, the Mets would still have lost 7-4.

Hitting-wise, Jose Reyes failed to get even one hit as his batting average slid to .285. David Wright led the Mets minimal "hit parade" by going 3-for-5; however, none of his hits produced any runs. The Mets left 11 runners on base, four more than the Nats did.

Moises Alou did extend his Met-record-breaking hitting streak to 28, but was only 1-for-5. Before yesterday's game, Alou had been particularly effective against Nats starter Matt Chico. He was 5-for-8 with a home run. But even he couldn't solve Chico last night.

With six games remaining in the regular season, the Mets' lead is down to two. Tagamet sales must be booming.

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