NEW YORK -- If Orlando Hernandez is to retain his reputation as a big-game pitcher this autumn, he'll need to tweak that title just a bit. No longer will it be "big-game pitcher." Now, it's "big-inning pitcher."

El Duque pitched a scoreless frame in relief in Wednesday's 9-6 loss to the Nationals, and he'll remain in the bullpen for at least through the end of the season -- and likely in the playoffs, as well.

"For him to be a starter as we move forward," manager Willie Randolph said, "is a long shot."

El Duque threw a regular bullpen session on Tuesday, and he was originally scheduled to pitch a simulated game on Thursday, barring any setbacks. He hadn't pitched in a live game since an isolated start on Sept. 11, sitting out 10 contests before that outing and 13 after it with a strained tendon and a bunion on his right foot.

Yet El Duque was feeling well enough to pitch prior to Wednesday's game, and he informed Randolph of his status. So, already at a loss for relievers, the Mets manager summoned El Duque to pitch the seventh inning against the Nationals.

Hernandez showed plenty of rust, walking two batters and needing 29 pitches to complete his inning. But complete it he did, without allowing a run. And that's more than what the other Mets relievers have been able to say lately.

"I'm feeling good," El Duque said. "A little sore, but I could throw every pitch."

Some piece of El Duque's appearance was colored out of necessity. The Mets didn't ease their injured pitcher back into a blowout; they threw him into the fire of a one-run game with critical ground in the National League East on the line.

Over the past four games, seven Mets relievers have combined to allow 17 earned runs. Even counting the relatively strong showings of Scott Schoeneweis and Pedro Feliciano -- both of whom pitched a scoreless inning on Wednesday -- the bullpen holds a 9.37 ERA over that span.

"I still trust them," Randolph said. "The bottom line is getting the job done. These guys have fought for me all year, and they've given me their hearts and souls. You don't give up on your people."

So the Mets skipper didn't give up on El Duque, despite stressing multiple times over the past week that he would have to see the right-hander in action before he would consider trusting him in the postseason. El Duque did little to betray that trust, even managing to rouse an otherwise lethargic crowd to its feet in the seventh, when he struck out two straight Nats to end the frame.

Now the question becomes how far this experiment will go. El Duque insisted that he has no inkling of what the future might hold, repeatedly offering only "I don't know" to nearly every question posed to him.

Randolph has remained comparably cautious in his assessments of El Duque, citing all those idle games as reason to hold him out of the rotation. He left no doubt that El Duque would pitch out of the bullpen for the remainder of the regular season, and little doubt that he would be there in the NL Division Series, as well.

If the Mets make it there, that is.

"I think they're bringing back Tom Seaver," quipped closer Billy Wagner. "Whoever can get three outs."