That was where Mike Pelfrey did his offseason throwing, using an indoor facility at Wichita State, his alma mater, to pitch to hitters. Pelfrey's winter project was to work on his split-finger pitch, and the way the Shockers batters reacted to his splitter told Pelfrey he was on to something.
Was he ever.
That splitter "is everything, almost" behind Pelfrey's success so far this season.
"It's obviously been a huge pitch for me," Pelfrey told FanHouse this week. "It's been that secondary pitch that I've never had. It's kind of that second weapon."
The biggest development for the surging Mets this year isn't Ike Davis' ascendancy to fan favorite, or Jason Bay's slump, or Jose Reyes batting third, or that Jerry Manuel still has his job as manager.
It's that Pelfrey, 26, is pitching like a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
As John Lackey signed with the Red Sox and Joel Piniero went to the Angels and the Phillies traded for Roy Halladay, the Mets stood pat with pitching -- and took reams of criticism for it.
Rightly so, it seemed. The Mets had a No. 1 pitcher, Johan Santana, but after that seemed to have a collection of 4s and 5s.
But if Pelfrey -- scheduled to pitch Saturday at Philadelphia -- can continue to pitch at a high level, suddenly the Mets have a much more solid rotation than originally thought, and a better chance to contend in the NL East.
"It'd be very, very big for us," Manuel said.
In four starts plus and one emergency save in the Mets' 20-inning win at St. Louis on April 17 , Pelfrey is 4-0 with a 0.69 ERA (best in the majors*** among ERA qualifiers), no homers given up and a .200 batting average allowed.
|On A Roll
|Mike Pelfrey's 2010 outings:|
|April 9, WAS
|April 15, at COL
|April 17, at STL
|April 20, CHC
|April 25, ATL
Pelfrey used to be so anxious on the mound that in one game last year, not only did Pelfrey balk three times, but San Francisco's Bengie Molina actually overheard Pelfrey yelling at himself, "Slider! Slider!" -- and then Molina whacked the slider for an RBI single.
Now he's calmer.
"His confidence right now is way high," catcher Henry Blanco said.
Since allowing two runs in the second inning of his season debut, Pelfrey has thrown 24 straight scoreless innings.
With runners in scoring position, opposing hitters are 1-for-17 (.059).
"You start having success, confidence comes," Pelfrey said. "And I think that's continuing to get better.
"I think sometimes -- it happened to me a lot last year -- when guys get on, the game almost sped up for me. I think now that I'm confident, the game's almost slowed down a little bit."
The Mets' first-round pick in 2005, Pelfrey came into this year with a with a 28-32 career record and 4.58 ERA. He had an above-average sinker, but not much else.
A few years ago, then-pitching coach Rick Peterson had Pelfrey try a split-finger pitch. He threw a few on the side, but the next day "my elbow was killing me."
Late last season, pitching coach Dan Warthen had Pelfrey try again, this time with a different grip that other pitchers had tried to reduce the stress a splitter can put on the forearm or elbow.
Instead of the traditional index and middle fingers spread outside the seams, with the ball pushed through the gap, Pelfrey put his index finger on top of the ball and his middle finger off to the side.
Instead of the hard, tumbling splitter that some pitchers have, Pelfrey found himself more of a changeup. It replaced his old "circle change" (thumb and index finger form a circle on the side of the ball, with the other three fingers on top).
"It was terrible," Pelfrey said of the circle change. "It would get shellacked every time."
Pelfrey didn't use the splitter in a game until his final start of 2009, and then only threw three of them.
"I threw them all for strikes," Pelfrey said. "I ended up getting, I think, two outs on it."
The pitch is about eight mph slower than his sinker and with down-and-in break to a right-handed hitter -- at a similar angle as the sinker but even more movement.
"It's hardly ever straight," catcher Rod Barajas said.
What Pelfrey needed more than anything was any kind of pitch, other than his two-seamer, that he felt comfortable throwing. He said he probably never threw his old changeup more than four times a game but estimated he will now use the splitter about 20 times.
"He's got a great two-seam fastball," Barajas said, "but when you throw that pitch over and over again, these hitters, they're going to catch on. Now he's got this pitch that he can throw pretty much in any count.
"It doesn't necessarily have to be a strike. Even if it's out of the zone, there's a chance these guys are going to swing at it. The comfort level that these hitters used to have just isn't there any more."
According to fangraphs.com, Pelfrey has thrown 64.4 percent first-pitch strikes -- up from a previous career rate of 58 percent. And baseball-reference.com says just 28 percent of Pelfrey's strikes have been put in play, down from 33 percent over his previous four seasons.
During spring training, Barajas would talk to Pelfrey about Curt Schilling, whom Barajas caught with the Diamondbacks. What Barajas learned from Schilling's excellent splitter, and tried to impress upon Pelfrey, was that the pitch can be thrown for more than just strike three.
"For me that's a pitch [where] he doesn't have to wait 'til two strikes," Barajas said. "It's not only an out pitch. It's a get-back-in the-count pitch. It's an even-in-the-count pitch to get ahead.
"He doesn't have to save it. He doesn't have to try to hold onto it and use it only when he's trying to get a strikeout. There's a lot of aggressive hitters in the league, and when they're ahead in the count, anything that looks like a fastball out of the [pitcher's] hand, they're swinging."
Pelfrey had a 6.15 ERA in spring training, but he wasn't concerned. He was using Grapefruit League games to work on his new pitch, and he gained confidence in it.
"The improvement it's made, it's crazy," Pelfrey said. "I didn't think coming into the season it would be as good as it has."
Still, the Mets decided to slot him fourth in the rotation, after Santana, John Maine and rookie Jonathon Niese.
"I think by pushing him back," Manuel said, "it also helped in a strange way to take some pressure off."
OK, that sounds a bit like revisionist history.
Nonetheless, there was hardly any indication to the naked eye that Pelfrey, Maine or Oliver Perez could step up and be a No. 2 starter.
"I think the question marks were rightfully so," Pelfrey said, "with the injuries [to others] and I had a bad year last year."
But armed with a splitter and an attitude, Pelfrey has given itchy Mets fans hope he can make up for losing out on Lackey, Halladay and Piniero.
"We always felt that way about him," Manuel said. "He always had that potential."