Bob Lutz

Mets' Mike Pelfrey figures it all out

Here's one of the things I love about Mike Pelfrey.

The guy signs a big contract with the New York Mets as the No. 9 pick in the 2005 major-league draft. He debuts in Gotham in 2006 as the Next Big Thing. He becomes a part of the Mets' starting rotation in 2008 and last season he wins 15 games and gets his first All-Star snub.

Through it all, he remains true to his Wichita roots — he was raised here, went to Heights and then Wichita State. So much so that he and his wife, Angela, are building a house near Andover and when Pelfrey's playing career is over he plans to high-tail it back here and live the good life.

He's a 6-foot-7 Chamber of Commerce advertisement.

On the days Pelfrey wakes up in New York, he immediately feels out of place.

But on the days he wakes up in Wichita, he's home.

"My wife's family is here, my family is here, it's just a slower pace,'' said Pelfrey, who will head to spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Feb. 13. "This is way more my style.''

Even if New York isn't his kind of town, Pelfrey is determined to have another big season for the Mets. He's already been named opening-day starter by new manager Terry Collins and will likely oppose Florida's Josh Johnson and Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, two of the best pitchers in baseball, in his first two starts.

But Pelfrey is game.

"Terry Collins came to me and said, 'Hey, you're going to start opening day? You want that?' And I was like, 'Heck, yeah, I want that. I think it's great. Pitchers dream about getting to start on opening day.''

Pelfrey was 9-1 with a 2.39 ERA after 14 starts last season and was being talked about as a National League All-Star. But that's all it was, talk. He didn't make the team, then hit a bump. In his next nine starts, Pelfrey was 1-5 with a 6.40 ERA.

But Pelfrey didn't fold. He and Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen determined that Pelfrey wasn't relying enough on his fastball, instead attempting to trick too many hitters with his off-speed stuff. After going back to more hardball, Pelfrey was 5-3 with a 2.78 ERA during his last 11 starts.

At 27, he seems to have finally put together talent and maturity because neither, alone, is enough to win at the big-league level.

Pelfrey was a dominant pitcher at Wichita State, striking out more than one per inning. He ranks No. 2 in career strikeouts and ERA. With the Shockers, he relied almost exclusively on a sinking fastball to get hitters out. And more often than not, hitters had no answer.

In pro ball, Pelfrey was tinkered with. I fret when I say that, but it's what happened.

Because he was destined to be a starting pitcher, Mets coaches thought it was imperative to teach him other pitches. Pelfrey struggled with some of them.

"When I first got called up to the big leagues, I had one pitch,'' Pelfrey said. "That sinking fastball, something I had always gotten by with. But at this level, I don't think my command was quite as good as it needed to be. And I think I tried to do more than I was capable of doing.''

Pelfrey's brain was fried. He didn't feel like the same pitcher out there. Not used to tricking things up, he longed for the good ol' days of just raring back and firing fastballs by hitters.

But that's not how it works in the big leagues. Hitters feast off of fastballs, especially when they know one is coming.

Pelfrey figured out that keeping hitters guessing is the key to a pitcher's success and he has refined his assortment of pitches. He's no longer the mid-90s guy he was at WSU, but he still relies on the sink of his fastball, an improving slider, a split-finger fastball that at times last season was unhittable and even a curveball.

Pitching in spacious Citi Field for most of his games has also helped; Pelfrey allowed only 12 home runs last season. Pitching more to contact than he ever has, Pelfrey struck out only 113 batters in 204 innings but again pitched with outstanding control, walking three per nine innings.

"Last year, I was more comfortable,'' Pelfrey said. "I started to go out there every time and expect to win. I had one really awful, awful month, but even then I think I learned a lot about myself. I learned what makes me, me. I got too much away from my fastball.''

Pelfrey's assortment of pitches is great, but they don't work nearly as well if he doesn't pound his fastball 65 to 70 percent of the time.

"The sinking fastball has to be my bread and butter,'' he said. "It's the pitch that makes all the other pitches better.''

Pelfrey would like another fast start in 2011, although that's not likely to happen in spring training. He has always struggled in March, usually carrying an ERA of 10-plus in exhibitions.

That's one reason he's so happy Collins has already made the decision on the opening-day starter. Pelfrey, who signed a one-year deal for $3.93 million to avoid arbitration, will pitch pressure-free in Florida and work on his own timetable. The pressure will rise in the Mets' opener in Miami against the Marlins.

Pitching in New York isn't for everybody. Mets fans can be a tough lot.

"They either love you in New York or hate you,'' said Pelfrey, who has felt some of both. "You either win or get out. The last couple of years, we haven't been as good as everybody thought we would be. There's a lot of negativity that surrounds that.''

It's negativity that doesn't exist in Wichita, where Pelfrey is toasted wherever he goes.

"It's nice to go around town and do my thing here,'' he said. "I can go for a workout and not get screamed at by fans.''