NEW YORK — Pitchers rule the New York Mets' roster, statistically and in their clubhouse.
“Time for stretching. See you guys later,” veteran lefty Johan Santana yelled, grinning and shooing a dozen media folks out a few hours before a game against the San Francisco Giants.
Surely, many of the reporters were gathered in the expansive Citi Field digs to find out how the Mets have defied a last-place National League East forecast. The answers are all around the blue and orange room.
R.A. Dickey, 37, entered professional baseball via the University of Tennessee without an ulnar collateral nerve in his throwing elbow, invented a knuckleball and has put together one of the oddest good careers in Major League Baseball.
Jon Niese has emerged as an ace, relatively speaking. Guys named Manny Acosta, Jon Rauch and Tim Byrdak are overachieving.
Bobby Parnell fits right in. The former Charleston Southern pitcher is an unlikely leader within a high-wire troupe. The right-hander, who had an ERA of 8.86 his final season in college, is on the verge of becoming one of the best middle relievers in baseball.
The king of Salisbury, N.C., is professionally at home in Queens.
“My favorite thing to do in New York?” Parnell said. “Well, I like to go downtown every now and then. The big thing is I like to people-watch. You know, you go down to Times Square and just walk around. You see everything.”
Not that Salisbury is two barns and a stop sign. It's famous as the home of Cheerwine and Food Lion and now imports Parnell's fire-and-ice pitching to ballparks all over the nation. His fastball has touched 100 mph on the radar gun. His new knuckle-curve is a frightening thought for batters.
“The attribute that I really appreciate about Bobby is that he is very even-tempered,” Dickey said. “Never too high, never too low. He takes things in stride. To be a guy who throws in the positions he throws in, that's a great attribute to have.”
Even when Parnell was struggling with control at Charleston Southern, scouts were intrigued by fastballs launched from a 6-4, 200-pound frame. The Mets made Parnell their ninth-round draft pick in 2005 and have watched him improve steadily. Parnell reached the majors in 2005 and last season had a career-high six saves while going 4-6 with a 3.64 ERA.
“He's found a way to back off that 100 mile-an-hour stuff to really command the baseball,” Dickey said. “The fact he can dial it down and dial it back up when he needs to, that's a pretty good foundation for success.”
Parnell added the knuckle-curve after advice from former Mets pitcher Jason Isringhausen, a response to poor performance down the stretch of the 2011 season.
“Izzy helped me with it and it's been a good pitch for me this year,” said Parnell, 0-0 with a 3.24 ERA over his first eight appearances of 2012. “I needed something to counter-act the fastball. It's an easy pitch for me to throw and I've had a lot of success with it.
“It's really a curveball. You just put a knuckle on it and take a finger off to kind of slow down the equation.”
It helped at Mets training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., this spring that Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax was around to tweak Parnell's approach.
“Sandy told him he's got to learn to pitch upstairs,” Mets manager Terry Collins told the New York Post. “I know Sandy said, ‘This guy has got too good an arm not to have guys fouling balls off of him all the time.' If he throws upstairs, he will change their eyesight. He'll get some swings and misses up there, too.”
Sometimes it works for Parnell.
Other times, Troy Tulowitzki hits a home run.
Either way, Parnell plays it cool.
“It's definitely something I've worked on,” Parnell said. “I've had a lot of ups and downs and I just try to keep level-headed out there. If I'm struggling, I try to make it look like I'm confident out there. Sometimes, you have to psyche yourself out.”
Parnell stays grounded with North Carolina offseasons. For him, a radical move was marrying a woman who isn't from Salisbury; Maegan Parnell grew up just down I-85 in Concord.
Another baseball season, and full circle to Times Square.
“It can be tough living in New York,” Parnell said. “It's a different lifestyle than the one I grew up with in Salisbury. But I get used to it a little bit more every year.”
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff