El Duque has sights set on starting

El Duque has sights set on starting

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Don't be fooled by Orlando Hernandez's shaky command of the English language. He reads "a little bit," as he put it Saturday, and for El Duque, that's more than enough to keep up with current events.

"A lot of writers have me in the bullpen," Hernandez said. "But I'm going to the mound. Starting pitcher: Orlando."

Strong words from a man who has yet to even consider playing in a game this spring. Maybe he's close. Maybe not. Regardless, El Duque has reiterated throughout Spring Training that the Mets signed him to start games, and that he intends to do just that.

That's why Hernandez continued to prepare as a starter on Saturday morning, pitching three simulated innings off a bullpen mound at Tradition Field. Continuing to tinker with his new windup -- in an effort to relieve pressure from the bunion on his right foot, he no longer kicks his leg up to his chin -- El Duque said he was pleased with his work.

"It wasn't perfect, but nothing is perfect," he said. "Only God."

And maybe, just maybe, all those warmup exercises will matter. If Mike Pelfrey can show he's ready to be consistently dominant -- or at the very least, to be plain old consistent -- at the big league level, then the Mets might be inclined to keep their best starting pitching prospect right where he is.

That's why later on Saturday, everything that transpired during the first four innings at Tradition Field loomed large. Pelfrey, unable to find a comfortable grip on the ball in windy conditions, allowed seven runs in a 12-4 loss to the Marlins. They may have been his first seven runs of the spring, but they were seven runs nonetheless.

"That was me last year," Pelfrey said. "Falling behind guys, pitching behind in the count, walking guys -- that's the stuff I went through last year. That's the same stuff."

The same stuff that saw the Mets twice ship Pelfrey down to the Minors last summer, while a healthy El Duque thrived back in Queens. Last year, however, these two weren't competing against each other. This year, they are -- as long as that same healthy Hernandez returns.

"I don't even now if there's a spot open," Pelfrey said. "But definitely if there is, today doesn't help."

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To compare Pelfrey and Hernandez at this juncture of spring wouldn't be fair. One has made three starts -- two good, one bad -- while the other hasn't even had a whiff of live action. Mets manager Willie Randolph said that he might slot El Duque into the rotation this week, depending on how his oldest starter feels on Sunday.

El Duque could instead pitch a simulated game -- finally facing batters -- or remain stalled at his current progress. Questions linger over whether his new delivery can even begin to produce the same results as his old one. Being healthy might not even help.

What's clear is that if Hernandez can't return to the mound soon, he simply won't have enough time left to prepare for the regular season. He must pitch soon, or concede his rotation spot to Pelfrey -- the guy who's already two weeks ahead of his schedule.

Hernandez still has a shot -- that much is certain. Yet time is running out. If El Duque can prove that he has a healthy arm and a healthy foot, then Pelfrey might come to regret his Saturday performance a bit more. If not, then those seven runs simply might not matter. Then one of this camp's few competitions might not even have a chance to begin.

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