LAKELAND, Fla. _ Mike Pelfrey sat by his locker, his eyes half closed as he stared at a plate of scrambled eggs.
He mumbled hello, but it was clearly too early to talk.
It was shortly after seven yesterday morning and Pelfrey was waiting to board the bus for the two-and-a-half hour drive for his start against the Detroit Tigers.
“It was a tough draw,â€™â€™ said Pelfrey, who passed the time playing solitaire on his cell phone and struggled for a few minutes of sleep made difficult because the seats wouldnâ€™t recline enough for his 6-foot-7 frame.
“But, somebody has to make it, and the sixth guy in the rotation better than anybody else.â€™â€™
Maybe next year, if heâ€™s in the rotation, he wonâ€™t make that trip.
Most definitely he wonâ€™t if he becomes the pitcher general manager Omar Minaya envisions.
“Heâ€™s someone we wanted to keep,â€™â€™ Minaya said of the Mets refusing to include Pelfrey in the deal to Minnesota for Johan Santana.
“We feel he could be one of the best young pitchers in baseball.â€™â€™
As the Metsâ€™ first-round pick in the 2005 draft _ the ninth-overall selection _ the expectations have been high for Pelfrey, making last seasonâ€™s 0-7 start tremendously disappointing, but educational.
“When I look back and try to reflect on the season, half the year I was pitching behind in the count and I got punished by it,â€™â€™ Pelfrey said.
“Last year was the first time in my life Iâ€™ve had to handle adversity. The game has always come easy for me. Iâ€™ve been able to throw the fastball and get by with it.â€™â€™
Thatâ€™s easy in college; hard in the major leagues.
Minaya said the Mets didnâ€™t give Pelfrey much run supportÂ _ thatâ€™s true with only 20 runs in his first eight starts _ but in the interest of accuracy, he conceded Pelfrey tried to be too fine with his secondary pitches at the expense of his fastball.
And, once behind in the count, hitters could sit on the fastball.
“A lot of young pitchers make that mistake,â€™â€™ Minaya said. “When he came back he was much more aggressive with his fastball.â€™â€™
Pelfrey pieced things together mentally while at Triple-A New Orleans.
“Iâ€™m a power pitcher,â€™â€™ Pelfrey said. “I should throw my fastball more.â€™â€™
When he returned, Pelfrey was masterful in giving up one hit in six scoreless innings, Sept. 1, at Atlanta. He gave up two runs in his next start, a victory over Houston.
Overall, while riding his fastball, Pelfrey won three of his last four decisions.
“He has more confidence with how he finished last season,â€™â€™ manager Willie Randolph said. “Heâ€™ll feed off that.â€™â€™
Establishing the fastball was his mentality in yesterdayâ€™s 4-2 loss in which he gave up one hit in two scoreless innings.
“I donâ€™t know if it was dominance, but I thought I did some things right,â€™â€™ Pelfrey said. “I located the fastball. I was more aggressive in the strikezone.â€™â€™
However, just being aggressive wonâ€™t be enough to make the Opening Day roster. If his right foot is sound, the rotationâ€™s fifth spot will go to Orlando Hernandez.
Although Hernandez has yet to throw batting practice, Minaya isnâ€™t concerned.
“Weâ€™re not going to rush him,â€™â€™ Minaya said.
Pelfrey will get the first call when the Mets need help. Spring training for him will be about giving Minaya a sense of confidence when he picks up the phone.
“I donâ€™t know if there is even a spot open,â€™â€™ said Pelfrey, playing the diplomat.
“I want to be on this team and I want to help them. If it comes to the worse, I just want to make their decision difficult.
“I think the chances of the whole staff going the whole year without something happening is slim.
“If I donâ€™t get it out of spring training, sometime during the year Iâ€™ll get my opportunity. No way I can be mad. Theyâ€™ve given me opportunities and I havenâ€™t taken advantage of them. Thatâ€™s the bottom line.â€™â€™