Focused Perez to start must-win game

Focused Perez to start must-win game

ST. LOUIS -- It's not as if Oliver Perez hasn't started some big games before in his career, but none of them have been in the playoffs. And on Sunday night, because of the circumstances, he may be facing the toughest assignment of his career.

By virtue of Saturday night's 5-0 loss to the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, Perez and the Mets are now in a must-win situation. New York trails the best-of-seven series, 2-1.

The 25-year-old left-hander is scheduled to pitch against Cardinals rookie Anthony Reyes in Game 4 at Busch Stadium. And Mets manager Willie Randolph said before the game that selecting Perez was an easy choice.

"Well, it didn't take long to make the decision," Randolph said. "We needed a fourth starter, and he pitched well for us this year. We like his stuff. It was down to either him or Dave Williams, and we felt like he was the guy that would give us a quality start.

"So it wasn't any big decision or anything we thought about long and hard. It was just, he was on our staff and he's pitched well and we have confidence in him."

Perez was the Opening Day starter for the Pirates the last two seasons and was on the mound to open one of the most memorable games of this year's World Baseball Classic: Mexico's 2-1 second-round victory that eliminated Team USA from the tournament.

But since the Classic, it's been a tough season for Perez, who once was a member of the young 2002 Padres starting pitching corps along with Jake Peavy, Adam Eaton and Brian Lawrence. Aside from Peavy, all of them have been scattered to the wind. Perez was traded to the Pirates in mid-2003 along with Jason Bay in the deal that sent Brian Giles to San Diego.

But Perez fell out of favor in Pittsburgh this year and was demoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on June 29. A month later, he was traded again, this time to the Mets along with Roberto Hernandez for Xavier Nady. And now Perez is coping with getting his first postseason start.

"I think the most important thing in the playoffs is don't get too nervous," said Perez, who was 2-10 for the Pirates this year, 1-3 for the Mets with ERAs in excess of six runs per game for both teams. "It's the same baseball, just a little more pressure. You just have to play baseball and don't think about it."

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The question is, which Perez will take the mound on Sunday? The one who pitched three scoreless, one-hit innings against the U.S. and four scoreless innings in his pair of World Baseball Classic appearances, or the one who was demoted to the Minor Leagues twice this year -- once by the Pirates and once by the Mets?

Perez has given sneak previews of what he is capable of accomplishing.

In his last start of the regular season on Oct. 1, Perez pitched one of his best games of the year, throwing four innings at Washington, while allowing only one run on five hits in an eventual 6-2 Mets win. It created neat bookends to the season since Perez worked into the sixth inning during the Bucs' opener at Milwaukee on April 3, giving up only one run on three hits in a 5-2 loss.

The problem is what transpired in between, and what Perez has done to pull himself out of it.

"Since he's been here, he's worked real hard," Randolph said. "Not just with [pitching coach] Rick Peterson, but with guys like Tommy Glavine and Pedro Martinez. Those guys have been very instrumental in his coming together, making some adjustments.

"He's done a nice job of repeating his delivery, throwing strikes. Every once in a while, he'll get a little bit erratic, like most pitchers will, but he's really been very consistent throwing strikes. Since he's been here, that's been a big improvement for him."

Dialing back the clock four years to his San Diego days, much more was expected from Perez than his 30-43 record and 4.67 ERA indicates. He was the nexus of the Giles trade, Bay being just an unheralded Minor League throw-in at the time.

Perez said on Saturday night that all the shifting from team to team caused him some nervousness and displacement. But that may be all behind him.

"Right now, I feel good because there's a lot of veteran guys around me," Perez said. "It's my first time being with a lot of veterans, like Glavine and Pedro, and they help me a lot. They just tell me, 'Be relaxed in the game and don't think too much. Just play baseball.'"

And that's what he's going to try to do in his first postseason start on Sunday night.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.