PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Over the past half-dozen years, the red-seamed baton has passed from Pedro Martinez to Tom Glavine to Johan Santana, two surefire Hall of Famers and another with a chance.

It falls to Mike Pelfrey in 2011. Which of these things is not like the other? Which of these men does not quite belong?

If it's not a fair comparison, that's not Pelfrey's fault. He was not the first choice for an Opening Day assignment -- an honor bestowed upon Santana and Glavine and Martinez before him. Instead, Pelfrey will start Friday's season opener in Miami principally due to Santana's unavailability following major shoulder surgery.

But he will be there on the mound nonetheless. And -- like Santana and Glavine and Martinez before him -- Pelfrey will be ready.

Opening Day results: March 31 | April 1
Marlins 6, Mets 2
WP: Johnson   LP: Pelfrey
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"When it comes time to pitch," fellow starter Jon Niese said, "he takes it real serious."

At its core, an Opening Day start is nothing but a fleeting accolade in a lengthy season, always appreciated and quickly forgotten. As Pelfrey himself likes to note, the pitching order only matters the first time through the rotation.

But that Pelfrey was Santana's default replacement nonetheless speaks volumes about the man. Once flustered by life in the big leagues, he is now the leader of this staff. Once wholly unable to cash in on his enormous potential, he is now one of the game's bright young starters. Once lost in a cluster of balks and runs, hits and tipped pitches, he is now a bona fide baseball success story.

He is also smart enough to brush aside the personal attention of an Opening Day start, yet wise enough to remain cognizant of its significance.

"Obviously, you look at Santana, it would be his if he was here," Pelfrey said. "But that's still something that everyone wants to do, that everyone strives to do."

When the Mets drafted Pelfrey with the ninth overall pick back in 2005, they had visions of him perennially making Opening Day starts. But it took until 2008 for Pelfrey to pitch a full season in the big leagues and until 2010 for him really to thrive, setting career highs in innings, wins and strikeouts with a career-low 3.66 ERA. And even then, question marks loomed. Pelfrey's final numbers would have been significantly better if not for a dreadful midseason stretch that saw him go 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA, lasting fewer than six innings in seven consecutive starts.

Had Pelfrey not recovered from that stretch, the Mets might have been worried that his old insecurities had again gotten the best of him. But Pelfrey instead responded with aplomb, finishing the year with a 2.78 ERA in his final 11 starts.

Friday's assignment, Pelfrey hopes, will simply be an extension of that -- a 12th consecutive start, six months in waiting.

To be certain, Pelfrey has had plenty of time to ruminate on it. Well aware of Santana's status this winter, new manager Terry Collins pulled Pelfrey aside during a January charity event in New York City and asked him if he wanted to start Opening Day.

"He said, 'Do you want that?'" Pelfrey recalled. "And I said, 'Yeah I want that. Of course.'"

And that was little surprise.

"He's a bull," catcher Josh Thole said. "When you're looking for a guy to take the baton, you're looking for a guy that's going to go out and fight and compete for you day in and day out."

He is excitable, also -- as he stood in the clubhouse late last week, Pelfrey was already imagining the jitters sure to overtake him around 7 p.m. ET Friday.

But he has earned those jitters.

The baton now belongs to Pelfrey, as it did to Martinez and Glavine and Santana before him. No one is mistaking him for one of those pitchers, each among the best of the past generation. But if Pelfrey can succeed on Friday, can parlay that into another strong April, followed by another strong summer and another strong season -- perhaps then maybe, just maybe, the thought won't seem so crazy.

"If I honestly didn't think that I could win, I wouldn't show up," Pelfrey said. "That's not me. So, obviously, I believe in what we're capable of and what we can do."