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El Duque's right foot a wild card

Mets to choose between El Duque, Pelfrey

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- His head is down, his arms are extended down at a 45-degree angle and behind his right leg, behind a semblance of the high and distinctive leg kick he brought with him from Cuba. His body is slightly more twisted, his delivery a bit more deceptive. And the results have changed as well; they're better, though only marginally so.

These were the coordinates of Orlando Hernandez on Friday afternoon after he had pitched five innings against the Orioles and as the Mets left Florida for Memphis, Tenn., and their final Spring Training game. He was right there, just where "maybe" and "perhaps" intersect, not all that far from where he had been -- the point at which "He doesn't have much" crosses "uncertainty."

And what that means for the composition of the Mets' starting rotation is more difficult to determine now than it was three weeks ago when Hernandez clearly wasn't throwing at a big league level. Mike Pelfrey, Hernandez's only visible competition for the fifth-starter assignment, also pitched Friday, and he sent more mixed messages -- three scoreless innings, followed by three runs allowed in a four-batter sequence with two outs in the ninth inning that fueled the Orioles' 4-3 victory.

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The Mets were to begin their final personnel deliberations Friday and Saturday. Pelfrey is expecting to begin the regular season as a Triple-A pitcher. What Hernandez expects -- from the club and from his own body -- is an unknown.

With prompting from either pitching coach Rick Peterson or any other member of the Mets' staff, El Duque resurrected portions of his signature delivery in the hopes of finding more power, more pop and no new bunion pain. He appeared to be more characteristic of the pitcher who has pitched in each of the Mets' past two seasons.

Hernandez said he felt good, though he seldom lets on when he doesn't. But when he discussed the pain in his right foot, he said, "Not today. Don't know tomorrow," as if he were anticipating a problem because of his change of delivery. "You do what you have to do."

Moreover, scouts noticed El Duque landed gingerly on his right foot after he released his pitches Friday, perhaps a precursor to pain in the morning in Memphis.

Hernandez had abandoned his signature delivery early in camp because he endured sharp pains in the foot when he raised his toe before pushing off the rubber. The modified delivery he adopted was far less exaggerated and caused less pain. But it also generated less power. Hernandez, still something of a power pitcher when the Mets acquired him in 2006, was pitching at Randy Jones speed. But it was hittable.

Hernandez was flat-footed, or close to it. He adjusted his delivery in the third of three innings he pitched against the Cardinals on Sunday and made more adjustments Friday against the Orioles. His heel was off the ground, but, according to Peterson, "Not enough to aggravate the foot."

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The change didn't help his velocity -- the Mets' highest radar reading for him was 84 mph.

The kindest assessments of El Duque's performance on Friday were those that included the word "better," but each of them asked the same question: "Than what?" Hernandez faced 18 batters in five full innings at dilapidated Fort Lauderdale Stadium, built a few years before his birth. The scoreboard numbers were encouraging for the Mets, who, manager Willie Randolph says, base little on exhibition game pitching lines. El Duque surrendered four hits, a walk and a run and struck out two against a batting order that could not be confused with the Phillies or Braves.

And Hernandez proclaimed himself happy. "I am happy every day," he said.

If this were a day of progress, it was modest progress, and most of the steps forward were in the fourth and fifth innings -- clean innings when Hernandez faced the fourth though ninth batters and produced his two strikeouts.

"Something clicked after the third," catcher Brian Schieder said. "He was pretty impressive in his last two, moving the ball around."

If the Mets do decide Pelfrey should begin the season as the No. 5 starter, they will assign El Duque to the disabled list -- hardly an unfamiliar status for him. The assignment can be readily justified, they say, even though he has been able to pitch twice in simulated games and twice in exhibition games. The club merely needs to point to the foot surgery he did undergo in October and the effects of the bunion he chose not to have surgically repaired.

A DL assignment for Hernandez puts Pelfrey in a position he feels he hasn't earned.

"I haven't had the best of springs," Pelfrey said. "I didn't perform. I am making progress. I have the right mind-set. But [Hernandez] pitched five innings and gave up one run."

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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