Willie Randolph's answer to the question was either cautious or audacious. Randolph, the Mets' manager, said on Thursday that Alay Soler, the Cuban rookie, would probably get a second start, depending on how Jeremi Gonzalez pitched against the Phillies a couple of hours later.
Under what circumstances, Randolph was asked, might Soler, who walked the first three batters but pitched a most creditable six innings against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, not get another start? The Mets, after all, have developed a pitching shortage because of injuries and cannot afford to be so cavalier about a pitcher who looked impressive.
"We'll see when it comes around," Randolph replied. "Who knows? Gonzalez might come around and do a good job today. He might deserve another shot."
In retrospect, Randolph had avoided committing himself for a game scheduled for next week. For Gonzalez to snatch the start from Soler, he would have had to go out Thursday at Shea Stadium and pitch a complete game or a shutout, or a no-hitter even.
And look at what Gonzalez did. In the first inning, Chase Utley stroked a one-out single, the first of his four hits, and Bobby Abreu whacked the ball over the right field fence. One out later, Ryan Howard slugged the ball over the right-center-field fence.
Five batters into the game, Gonzalez and the Mets were down 3-0. Five batters into the game the night before, Soler and the Mets were down, 3-0.
But will Gonzalez get the next start instead of Soler? No chance. He had already been hammered out of the rotation, if not off the team.
Then a funny thing happened. Gonzalez proceeded to pitch basically the same game as Soler. He got out of the first inning without allowing any more runs, as Soler did, then shut out the Phillies for five innings, as Soler did.
If the similar performances created a quandary for the Mets, they didn't let it delay their decision. By the time Randolph appeared before reporters after the 5-3 loss to the Phillies, the team had decided what to do. Gonzalez, Randolph announced, had been designated for assignment and would return to the minor leagues.
"We think Soler pitched much better than Gonzalez," said General Manager Omar Minaya, appearing before reporters to announce the acquisition of yet another pitcher, Dave Williams, a left-handed starter, from Cincinnati. "He had more control of the game. He had more swings and misses."
Williams will not supplant Soler in the rotation. The Mets optioned him to the minors for remedial work. The Reds designated him for assignment last week after he struggled with a 7.20 earned run average and a 2-3 record in eight starts.
The Mets gave Cincinnati a low-level minor leaguer for Williams. The Reds will pay half of what remains of his US$1.4 million salary this season, so the Mets get him for less than US$500,000. That's not an expensive premium these days for an insurance policy.
Williams was the second pitcher the Mets acquired in two days. They got Orlando Hernandez from Arizona on Wednesday for Jorge Julio, a relief pitcher who had failed to gain Randolph's confidence. Hernandez will join the rotation and start tomorrow in Florida, following Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine.
"I feel better about our pitching than I did two days ago," said Minaya, who added that he had been prepared to make the Williams deal earlier in the week when Hernandez became available.
Minaya would feel even better if the Florida Marlins would trade Dontrelle Willis to the Mets, but the Marlins have told them they aren't trading Willis anywhere. Florida has Willis for three more seasons after this one before he can become a free agent, and the Marlins are hoping their future will look brighter and wealthier before then.
In the meantime, Willis is being wasted and asked to pitch for an expansion-type team. His 1-5 record and 5.12 ERA reflect the muck in which he is wallowing.
The Mets, on the other hand, continue to demonstrate their credentials for postseason qualification. Sweeping the Phillies would have been better than winning two of three, but this was the first serious challenge to their National League East lead, and they acquitted themselves well, expanding it to four games from three.
In the process, they have found a rookie pitcher who just may provide an unexpected boost and who would not be here if not for injuries to Vmctor Zambrano, Brian Bannister and John Maine.
After the game on Thursday, Soler said through an interpreter that he was happy to hear that he would make another start and wanted to "do the best I can to stay in the rotation." He said he would do better than his first start.
But, he added, he wasn't nervous, contrary to popular belief.
"My concentration level wasn't there 100 percent, and I didn't have my rhythm," Soler said. "That's why I was all over the place in the first inning. When I found my rhythm, I started to throw the ball over the plate."