PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- How quickly the feeling in the clubhouse can change. A hint of something positive prompts a tidal wave of optimism, just as a whisper of "Uh oh" can create gloom in every corner in a New York minute. Not always, but on occasion, 25 minds function as one.

That didn't happen with the Mets on Friday. Spring Training rosters exceed 25 players, and the way players come and go during exhibition games prevents any united thinking. But a universal "Yippee" did come from those players involved in Orlando Hernandez's start against the Cardinals and those who merely witnessed it.

For the first time this spring, the Mets saw all that they wanted to see in Hernandez. For the first time, he was neither 37, his stated age, nor 41, his suspected age. For the first time, his age was irrelevant. His performance took precedence. As David Cone once observed after he had watched Hernandez put away a Yankees opponent: "That was El Duque today, not Orlando Hernandez."

All right, so it was merely an exhibition game, and the Cardinals' batting bore scant resemblance to the one El Duque is likely to face April 3 in the season's second game. Albert Pujols was absent; so, too, was Jim Edmonds. But present and very much accounted for was the kind of pitching that prompted the Mets to bestow $12 million on a pitcher who sometimes is all about age, disability and doubt.

Hernandez threw 95 pitches at the Cardinals in six innings. The pitches led to three hits, three walks, five strikeouts, an unearned run and untold optimism in the home clubhouse.

"It nice to see him do it again. It's reassuring," Julio Franco said afterward. "Doubt? I had no doubt. But I was happy to see him do that."

The Mets had merely dribs and drabs of Hernandez before Friday -- two innings in one game, a belated start that now seems as long ago as his 35th birthday, some pitches in a simulated game, and four -- it could have been five -- innings against the Cardinals in Jupiter on Sunday. That assignment was cut short when Hernandez developed cramps in his right hamstring and prompted thoughts of October, his calf, games not started and a pennant not won.

That's why six innings and 95 pitches looked so good Friday, why the clubhouse was so pleased by what it saw. Not only had the memories of October faded even more, a sense of thoroughness developed. The other four members of the projected rotation -- Tom Glavine, John Maine, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey -- have pitched effectively of late. El Duque hadn't pitched that much, period. Ninety-five pitches put him with or ahead of the others. Now, if he just shows up with "normal" soreness and no new pains Saturday.

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"We saw him do everything we needed to see him do," general manager Omar Minaya said. "You told us today he's as close as possible to being ready to start the season."

Not with words, with pitches.

El Duque's assessment pretty much contradicted Minaya's.

"I don't know if I'm ready to start. ... I know today I'm ready for tomorrow," he said.

Ready, presumably, to resume his unique and challenging conditioning program. Sometimes, hitting El Duque is easier than grasping his meaning.

Early on, his fastballs were up in the zone. The Cardinals' run, driven in by Scott Spiezio -- who else? -- came in the first inning. By the end of his workday, all his pitches were down. And his breaking stuff was effective.

Randy Niemann, one of the Mets' Minor League pitching observers, saw only Hernandez's last two innings.

"That's all I had to see," he said with a tone of the incredulous, as if he were surprised. "I know how it gets done," Niemann said. "I just don't know how he does it."

Pedro Martinez had come over from Rehab Central at the Minor League complex.

"He's looking good," Martinez said. "His velocity is good. He's healthy. And he's in a groove."

So start the season.