New El Duque on display

New El Duque on display

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Apparently unaware that a third act of "El Duque on Display" was pending, general manager Omar Minaya left the area where he had monitored the first two. He crossed through the stands directly behind the dugout, all the while speaking in Spanish with the pitcher who still was on the field. After the conversation ended, the Mets' GM provided a brief critique of what he had witnessed on Wednesday morning.

"Fine, fine," Minaya said with a tone that suggested something wasn't, as if he were defending Orlando Hernandez when the question -- "What do you think?" -- that had prompted the response hadn't been accusatory, but rather quite benign.

Hernandez had thrown 60 pitches to Minor League hitters from the mound in the stadium under simulated-game conditions. It was his first start this spring. And afterward, El Duque said the next step in his preparation would be in a genuine exhibition game against players dressed as opponents. Hernandez said he was pleased. Manager Willie Randolph said he had enjoyed watching El Duque. And the Mets' posture in this scenario was that everything was good.

But two players who had popped their heads out of the clubhouse door and into the dugout long enough to watch a half-dozen pitches hardly were in agreement with that assessment.

"There's no life to his pitches," one of them said. "He doesn't look like himself."

The teammates are El Duque admirers, players who enjoy watching the Mets' senior citizen do his stuff with all that stuff he throws. They're hoping his spring will lead to a successful season "just so we can watch him more," the other one said. But they're also concerned.

Less than three weeks remain before the regular season's first game. That's not the issue, though. The Mets can get by without a fifth starting pitcher until the third week of the season, and Mike Pelfrey is more than available to take the assignment that officially still belongs to Hernandez.

The concern was rooted in a fear that a pitcher of El Duque's age -- whatever it is -- will be unable to prosper as he has as recently as last summer with a reconstructed delivery and what they perceived as diminished stuff and life in his repertoire of pitches.

To alleviate pressure on the bunion on his right foot, Hernandez has made significant changes in his delivery. It is far less exaggerated and less quirky now. The kick that brought his knee close to his forehead has been reduced. Whatever sense of distraction existed because of it is reduced as well. But less life on his pitches is a more critical shortage.

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If, in fact, his pitches are less vibrant, Hernandez wasn't saying. In 10 different ways and in three languages -- English, Spanish and body -- he said he was pleased with the results. "All right, I'm happy," he said. "Everybody's happy."

Everybody included Randolph -- "It's good to see the Duke out there, doing his stuff, a little here and little there," the manager said -- and glass-half-full pitching coach Rick Peterson.

"He's pain-free, and he said he felt comfortable," Peterson said. "If he says he's ready to pitch, he must be."

But no day has been established for El Duque's spring debut.

Peterson was pleased that his pitcher had adjusted so well to the new delivery, attributing that to Hernandez's athleticism, a quality seldom mentioned.

If El Duque's velocity was something less than usual, the pitcher said he hadn't noticed. He acknowledged only that his pitches were high. No one could say for sure about his velocity; no radar gun had been used. Almost parroting the Tuesday words of Pedro Martinez, El Duque said, "I'm not worried about that [velocity]. I don't know the gun."

Peterson indicated that Hernandez probably had more fastballs than he chose to use. Said Hernandez: "It was the level [of speed] that I want. I am happy."

Happy, perhaps delusional, too. Hernandez, former Cuban, Yankees, White Sox and Diamondbacks pitcher -- yes, that Orlando Hernandez -- also said he was "looking for 30 starts." That from a pitcher of undetermined age who, during his nine years in the big leagues, has made more than 29 starts once -- 33 in 1999. He made 24 last year.

The Mets would be pleased with 25. At this point, the timing of the first start may be in question.

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