NEW YORK -- Maybe it was the way Oliver Perez shut out the Braves for seven innings last week, raising his 2007 record against them to 3-0 with a 1.31 ERA. Maybe it was outpitching Andy Pettitte in the Subway Series, helping the Mets take two of three from the crashing Yankees and claim Big Apple bragging rights. Or maybe all you needed to know about Perez was that he dominated David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in a spring training game -- striking out both Red Sox sluggers twice.
Ask around, and everyone seems to be in agreement about Perez this year: His rehabilitated slider has become the Mets' best pitching weapon, not to mention turning him into one of the National League's premier lefties. When Perez takes the mound against the Giants on Tuesday night, he'll be armed with the NL's fourth-best ERA (2.54) and an 8.42 strikeouts per nine innings rate that's making GM Omar Minaya look like a prophet.
After all, it was Minaya who saw enough in Perez to pry him away from the Pirates at the 2006 trading deadline. The Mets had just lost reliever Duaner Sanchez for the season in an auto accident and were hurriedly making a deal for Roberto Hernandez. But the swap wouldn't have been complete without Perez, who, despite a 2-10 record, intrigued Minaya.
The executive hadn't forgotten that brilliant 2004 campaign, when Perez struck out 239 batters in 196 innings, the majors' best ratio. As the GM said Monday by telephone, "If you have those kinds of numbers, you don't just lose it. I saw his potential; the only thing was he wasn't in the right kind of environment."
The Mets had faith that pitching coach Rick Peterson could correct Perez's mechanical flaws -- and there were plenty. Before Perez was sent to the minors, he was brought to Shea Stadium for a day, where the Mets' brain trust quickly discovered why the left-hander had been losing games in a steady blur. Perez's release point changed with every pitch; his arm angle was inconsistent; his balance was terrible.
No wonder Perez could overwhelm hitters in one inning and look helpless the next; he was a different pitcher in practically every at-bat. There was no disputing his arm strength, his velocity or the late, mean break of his slider. All Perez needed was consistency; what better mentors could he have had than Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine? Today, Perez is blossoming so quickly that usually cautious Minaya openly says, "People talk about Dontrelle [Willis], but with the stuff Perez has, he's right up there with Dontrelle."
Of course, the Mets aren't crazy enough to say Perez's evolution is complete. He's more like a work in progress. There've been great outings, like his most recent one against the Braves, but others that forced the Mets to recall just how bipolar Perez's arsenal used to be. On April 11, he issued seven walks in 2 2/3 innings against the Phillies, and he allowed eight runs (two earned) in 4 2/3 innings against the light-hitting Nationals on April 27.
But for every stinker on Perez's résumé, there are an increasing number of miniature classics, including his first start of the year, when he limited the Braves to just one run in seven innings, and a turning-point performance against the Brewers on May 13, when Perez surrendered just two hits and one run in 8 1/3 innings. That game allowed the Mets to take the series against what was then the major leagues' hottest team, moving Minaya to say, "We sent a message that day."
The message, in part, was Perez's own: My slider is back. As early as March, he was telling reporters, "This is my best slider since '04." The pitch breaks late and sharp, as if caught by a wind shear, and is especially devastating to right-handed hitters. Because Perez is blessed with a long, loose arm, he generates enough arm speed to mask the spin of the seams until it's too late to detect. Righties swing at what they think is a fastball hissing through the heart of the strike zone, only to discover the ball has dropped to their ankles.
[Oliver] Perez has proven he can rise to the occasion.
Mets GM Omar Minaya
That kind of talent doesn't come along very often, and even when it does, it can be sabotaged by immaturity or a bloated ego or, sometimes, fear. But the Mets already know Perez is neither vain nor fearful; he took the ball in Game 7 of the NL Championship Series without a moment of self-doubt. Despite the enormous pressure put upon him -- being asked to fill Pedro's shoes in a sold-out home ballpark -- Perez matched Jeff Suppan for six innings. He allowed just one run on four hits, getting a no-decision in the game that ultimately was decided by Yadier Molina's two-run home run in the ninth inning off Aaron Heilman.
When Minaya says, "Perez has proven he can rise to the occasion," he's speaking for the entire organization. The Mets believe they're only 6-8 weeks from welcoming Pedro back to the rotation -- and he already is telling reporters he can throw harder than Roger Clemens despite recovering from shoulder surgery.
If so, Perez will drop to the lower rung of the Mets' rotation, behind Martinez, Glavine and, presumably, Orlando Hernandez.
Or will he?
Catcher Paul Lo Duca says Perez "is turning into a monster" in 2007, meaning manager Willie Randolph could have his hands full sorting out the pitching talent. Most managers would kill for problems like that.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.