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El Duque's 'slow' outing beguiling

El Duque's 'slow' outing beguiling

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- For as long as he has been a big league pitcher, and while he was pitching in Cuba as well, Orlando Hernandez has been all about deception -- the exaggerated leg kick, hiding his pitches, the occasional sidearm sling and the rare Bugs Bunny changeup. And most folks in the game believe numerical information on El Duque's birth certificate to be fictional.

It is with that record of deception in mind that the latest episode of Hernandez's second Mets spring outing must be viewed. Caution and at least a dozen grains of salt must be used if a conclusion is to be drawn on what the "Duke of Deke" demonstrated on Tuesday morning in a game that wasn't even real, but simulated.

Hernandez threw like a man testing his arm, hardly like a pitcher scheduled to appear in an authentic exhibition game on Sunday, or a pitcher seeking a spot in a rotation that turns for the first time in 14 days.

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Instead, he threw as if he were auditioning for the lead in the "Stu Miller Story." Miller, the one-time Orioles reliever, was said to have have thrown his pitches at three speeds -- slow, slower and slowest. Some of El Duque's 80 pitches may have done Miller one better -- slower yet.

When Hernandez was done, two men who had monitored his performance disagreed on the number of pitches -- 75 or 80 -- he had thrown to an assortment of hitters that included Ramon Castro. Both agreed the two numbers covered the range of El Duque's velocity.

A scout who had attended to watch "opposing" pitcher Mike Pelfrey, as much as to see El Duque, suggested half of his time had been wasted, and likened Hernandez's innings to slow-pitch softball. The absence of velocity was that conspicuous.

The critiques provided by the Mets' staff were qualified by all the usual phrases heard in early March: "He's working on this or that. He's trying to find his rhythm. He's not trying to strike anybody out. It's not about velocity."

Only the last one seemed properly applicable.

Not only were Hernandez's pitches delivered without life, pop and zip, they lacked precision as well.

In one three-batter sequence in his first inning, El Duque hit a batter and walked two, the second with the bases loaded. The scout, a former big league pitcher, agreed the term "bat shy" could be appropriately applied to what he saw in Hernandez.

But who can say for sure? It's El Duque -- quirky, occasionally cantankerous, more often contrary, and always deceptive. His gas gauge doesn't necessarily reflect the content of the tank. His words are designed to leave questions unanswered.

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"Who knows what he's doing and why?" One of the Mets' observers said with annoyance in his tone. "He might be ticked off because he had to come in and work on the off-day. He probably didn't want to pitch at 10 o'clock in the morning. Maybe he didn't sleep. You can't tell with him.

"He saw everyone sitting back there [behind the plate]. Maybe it's just a set-up. He wants to prove everyone wrong. Even we can't tell."

The Mets aren't sure they'll have an accurate measure of Hernandez even after he faces the Cardinals on Sunday. And none of the their current ignorance or indecision about Hernandez starting the season in the rotation has anything to do with the likelihood that he will break down this year, as he did in each of the previous two seasons.

What general manager Omar Minaya said for sure is that Hernandez will not pitch in relief, and that the club hasn't decided whether to begin the season with four or five pitchers in the rotation. That decision may be based largely on the club's assessment of Hernandez.

One of manager Willie Randolph's favorite phrases in Spring Training, particularly as it applies to pitching performances is, "I don't take too much away from what he did" or some variation on the, "Don't believe all you see," warning. He spoke that advice several times after Hernandez had pitched. He and Minaya each said they were certain Hernandez could throw an 87-mph pitch if he had to, all evidence to the contrary aside.

Minaya did suggest something was missing from what he had witnessed. After he spoke the requisite, "There was progress. I saw progress." He added, "there are other things you'd like to see." But then he dismissed the apparent lack of velocity. So who was being obtuse?

Hernandez's performances can be as puzzling for scouts as they are for hitters. When El Duque was between employers in late February of 2004, he conducted an audition in Coral Gables, Fla., throwing for the Yankees some nine months after he had undergone elbow surgery. The Yankees weren't sufficiently impressed at first, but re-signed him. Four years later, he has won 48 games and one World Series ring.

He's been fooling a lot of people.

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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