Pelfrey's been Manuel's ace in the hole

NEW YORK -- Is Mike Pelfrey pitching to single-handedly save Jerry Manuel's job?

With speculation swirling around his manager's job status, Pelfrey came up with two quality starts in big spots this week to temporarily temper the firestorm surrounding Manuel.

The latest example came Saturday night, when "Big Mike" -- as Manuel likes to call him -- allowed just one earned run in six innings and struck out five to earn the win over Phil Hughes and the Yanks in front of a sellout crowd at Citi Field.

Pelfrey's first job-saving win of the week came Monday night in Atlanta, the same day owner Jeff Wilpon rolled into town for an impromptu pow-wow to discuss the state of the Mets after they'd lost four straight to the Marlins.

That night, Pelfrey went 7 2/3 innings to earn the victory in a 3-2 win over the Braves and temporarily cool the heat on Manuel.

The beauty of that start may have been lost in all the drama of Wilpon's visit. But Saturday night's win, which snapped a five-game losing streak to the Yanks -- including four losses in a row to the Bombers at Citi Field -- was fully appreciated.

"I feel very good about Big Mike," Manuel said after the Mets held on late for the 5-3 victory to improve to 21-23. "He has really evolved and matured into a solid, solid pitcher."

Maturity was the buzzword used by a number of teammates to describe Pelfrey, who improved to 6-1 (2.86 ERA) and showed again that he's put the inconsistency of past seasons in his rearview mirror.

Pelfrey went a combined 23-23 the past two years, when brilliant performances would be followed by baffling ones. This year, he says, he's put it all together.

"Mentally, I'm in the right place," Pelfrey said. "The game has slowed down on me."

That was clear to anyone who watched the top of the sixth Saturday night. Pelfrey started the inning with strikeouts of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, but, on his 100th pitch, allowed a single to Robinson Cano followed by a scorching double to Nick Swisher. Francisco Cervelli then hit a grounder that bounced off Pelfrey's right foot to score Cano on a play that Pelfrey said made him look "unathletic."

In years past, he acknowledged, he may have fallen apart there. But he calmly got Randy Winn to ground out to second to get out of trouble.

Jenrry Mejia followed with a scoreless seventh and Francisco Rodriguez came on to clean up a bases-loaded mess with one out in the eighth, getting the next five outs to earn his seventh save of the season.

The win gives the Mets, who came home after a 2-6 road trip and dropped the opener on Friday night, a chance to win the Subway Series if Johan Santana can outduel CC Sabathia on Sunday night.

If the Mets win Sunday, the series with the Yanks will provide a Subway Surge heading into their three-game midweek set against Philadelphia, a crucial series considering the Mets trail the Phillies by six games in the NL East.

Luckily for Manuel, Pelfrey is slated to pitch against Philly on Thursday.

He was rocked in his last outing against the Phils, a 10-0 Mets loss, but he'll come to the park with plenty of confidence this week.

"The biggest thing is when I show up to the park on days that I pitch, I expect to win," Pelfrey said. "Guys in the clubhouse are starting to think the same thing. Everybody says, 'When's Santana gonna pitch? When's Santana gonna pitch?' [But] guys come around now and say, 'Hey, when's Pelfrey gonna pitch?'

"I just want them to think the same thing I think: Pelfrey's on the mound today, we're gonna win."

Ian Begley is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com

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