Perez Making Strides
by: Patrick Hickey, Jr. | Senior Writer - NY Sports Day | Saturday, March 17, 2007

Striking out nine hitters through five scoreless innings against the Red Sox on Thursday, Mets starting pitcher Oliver Perez is making sure heís kept in mind when Willie Randolph decides who will be in the teamís starting rotation once the season starts on April 1.

Trying to reclaim the dominace he had in 2004, when he went 12-10 with 239 strikeouts for the Pirates, Perez is learning to become a better pitcher and doesnít seem at all fazed by noticeably reduced velocity. As a matter of fact, the 25-year-old Culiacan, Mexico native feels just as comfortable on the mound now as he did during his career year a couple of seasons ago.

"I'm not trying to strike people out," Perez told the Associated Press after his nine-strikeout performance against the Red Sox on Thursday. "It's more important to have no walks and keep my team in the game. I am happy with my velocity and that was my best slider -- as good as it was back in '04."

Perhaps learning to utilize his slider, rather than rely solely on his fastball [something some scouts and insiders have said Perez has done over the past two seasons], will bring both the Mets and the young fireballer the success they need to overcome the losses of Pedro Martinez and hold on to their NL East crown. However, regardless of Perezís optimistic attitude, Mets pitching coach Rich Peterson and manager Willie Randolph feel that itís better to take things slow and steady with the lefty.

"We're getting to the point now where he can master what he's started," Peterson told last week. "The best way to say it is he's got his Brown Belt right now and we're going for the Black Belt."

"He looked sharp. He looked good," told the Associated Press after Perezís most recent performance. "He's getting better and better each time out. He's coming along nicely; I like what I see."

Despite looking extremely solid in Spring Training this season, Perezís biggest claim to be a part of the Mets rotation may be his attitude in the clutch. Having serious problems last season with consistency and wildness, Perez still managed to earn himself a reputation as a big game pitcher and has the respect of his teammates, especially catcher Paul Lo Duca, who thinks that Perez gets a jump out of pitching in big games. That might be exactly what the Mets starting rotation needs if their going to be able to stand on their own two feet this season and erase the league-wide ideology last season that their bullpen was the strength of their staff, not their rotation

"I think he's a guy that when you need a lot, which he showed with us, he can perform," Lo Duca told "I think there are guys who get more amped up in certain situations, get psyched up for the playoffs. It looks like he does."

If Perez can continue to dominate through the rest of Spring Training, he may get more than a few opportunities to strut his stuff in big games this season and prove that his solid work in the playoffs last season was no fluke. If not, the Mets may be forced to look elsewhere for rotation help until Martinez returns.