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El Duque looks to give Mets leg up

El Duque looks to give Mets leg up

NEW YORK -- The day general manager Omar Minaya rescued Orlando Hernandez from life in the desert and put him in a Mets uniform, he raved about a piece of cable programming he had watched two nights earlier. The program was "Diamondbacks 4, Pirates 2," and the star was an intriguing figure named El Duque.

Minaya, with his team's pitching rotation already in disarray and with October already on his to-do list, watched Hernandez dispose of the Pirates with the assortment of pitches, arm angles and speeds that have distinguished him from most pitchers in the world.

A man who embraces diversity in all phases of his life, Minaya saw the void in the Mets rotation and was certain Hernandez's uniqueness, experience and prowess would be a proper fit. He mentioned the specter of strikeouts that day as he critiqued El Duque's May 22 start -- the Pirates struck out nine times in eight innings against Hernandez -- and he let it slip.

"You like strikeout pitchers in the postseason," Minaya said.

The general manager wasn't fantasizing as he envisioned Hernandez's high kick and high socks on the mound at Shea Stadium in a high-profile, high-hopes October moment. It was a plan more than a prophecy. Perhaps it was a premonition.

The highest profile moment in a Mets season since 2000 happens on Wednesday afternoon, when the National League Division Series begins at Shea. El Duque will be the man in the middle and, the Mets hope, money on the mound. With Pedro Martinez a postseason scratch, the responsibility of starting Game 1 has been assigned to Hernandez.

"If we can't have Pedro," Minaya said, not hiding his druthers, "who would you rather have?"

Hernandez has emerged from the Mets' summer of the Russian Roulette Rotation as the team's most consistently effective starter. He hasn't come by the Game 1 assignment by chance. Pitching coach Rick Peterson, quite aware of Martinez's potential unavailability two weeks ago, aligned his pitchers so that either Martinez or Hernandez would start the first playoff game. That Tom Glavine is in line to start Game 2 isn't coincidental either.

"El Do K"
Orlando Hernandez's career strikeouts per nine innings
Year
Team
IP
SO
SO/9
1998Yankees1411318.36
1999Yankees214 1/31576.59
2000Yankees195 2/31416.49
2001Yankees94 2/3777.32
2002Yankees1461136.97
2004*Yankees84 2/3848.93
2005D'Backs/Mets162 1/31649.09
Career11679587.39
*Sat out 2003, while with the Expos, because of injury.

In his final preparation for the 15th postseason start of his career, Hernandez polished his strikeout pitches in five innings against the Braves on Thursday night. He struck out nine batters for the third time this season, the first time since May 22. And in doing so, he opened some eyes.

There he was, age 36 or 40 or whatever -- and, really, what does his age matter in October? -- striking out nine of 25 batters, putting his record in 20 games with the Mets at 9-7 and putting himself in position to add to his postseason image.

The strikeouts were not lost on Minaya and manager Willie Randolph, who know how easily a best-of-five series can turn on one play -- or misplay. The more strikeouts, the less the defense handles the ball.

A stiff breeze
Strikeouts per nine innings, Mets starting pitchers
Pitcher
GS
S0/9
Oliver Perez610.19
Pedro Martinez239.29
Orlando Hernandez208.64
John Maine147.37
Victor Zambrano56.33
Tom Glavine316
Dave Williams55.14
Brian Bannister64.76
Alay Soler84.6
Steve Trachsel304.32
Only in starts for the Mets; five starts minimum

Hernandez has become more of a strikeout pitcher this season, his first in the National League. The nine-in-five performance put his season ratio of strikeouts per nine innings at 9.09, the highest in his eight active seasons. His ratio with the Mets was 8.64.

"The strikeouts come this year," he said. "I don't try [for them]. I want to get outs any way. In the playoffs too."

Only after his work was completed on Thursday night did Hernandez address his playoff assignment, and the reason for it.

"I don't feel good, because Pedro's not going to be with us and Pedro's hurt," he said through a translator. "But I have to assume the responsibility that they give me and face the truth. I'll be ready for it.

"Yes, I think now I can think about the playoffs and talk about the playoffs, because this is my last start before the playoffs and I feel like I'm prepared for it, that I'm ready for it. I think this is a positive way to finish the regular season. Now I can concentrate on the playoffs."

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Hernandez often has been at his best in the postseason. But he doesn't appear to be the force he once was with the Yankees, even when his bases-loaded escape against the Red Sox in the 2005 ALDS is considered.

In his first 10 postseason starts, Hernandez produced an 8-0 record. And it is those performances the Mets recall most readily and on which they now hang their hope. Since then, he has produced a 1-3 record and a 3.63 ERA in 39 2/3 postseason innings.

Whether that de-evolution has meaning won't be determined until Wednesday afternoon. Until then, as Randolph likes to say, "It is what it is."

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

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