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Perez continues mastery of Braves

Perez continues mastery of Braves

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ATLANTA -- Willie Randolph is quite familiar with the wonderful anecdote involving Billy Martin, his favored pitching coach Art Fowler and a young Yankees pitcher, trying to find his way, Dave Eiland.

Martin sent Fowler to the mound one day in 1988, without specific instruction for Eiland. And when Fowler arrived, he had no wisdom to impart. He merely said, "I don't know what to tell you, but you better start pitchin' better cause Billy's really ticked."

As the Yankees second baseman, Randolph witnessed that piece of win-or-else strategy firsthand. Now though, as Mets manager, he favors more direct communication. So on those rare occasions when he makes his way to the mound with no intention of changing pitchers, it is to deliver a message in a less menacing, but equally firm manner.

So it was in the third inning Wednesday night when Randolph walked purposefully to the mound at Turner Field with no intention of chatting with Oliver Perez.

The Braves had loaded the bases with two out, and with Matt Diaz batting, the Mets' lead appeared thinner than it was at one run. Diaz had been hitting in May as the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez had in April -- a .474 average. It was time for a monologue. Randolph interrupted what became the Mets' 3-0 victory and delivered his message.

"It was just my regular challenge," Randolph said.

Just B-material, presumably, making a point that was -- "Get us out of this mess." And after four pitches, Perez threw a 2-2 changeup that Diaz popped harmlessly into right field.

"Ollie responds to challenges," the manager said.

The Mets consider the Braves a genuine challenge. Even now with Perez having beaten the Braves for the third time this season, the challenge seems quite formidable.

"Because we've seen what it takes for us to beat them -- great pitching," Paul Lo Duca said.

An assortment of pitches -- mostly fastballs and sliders -- provided much of the fuel for the Mets' third victory in eight games against the Braves this season. Perez was effective in most of his seven innings and unyielding when the Braves -- or his manager -- challenged him. Joe Smith and Billy Wagner struck out two each in their one-inning assignments and secured the Mets' third shutout this season, all on the road.

But it was three changeups that turned the game in the Mets' favor -- the pitch from Perez that ended the third, the pitch he threw Chipper Jones with a runner on second to end the fifth and the changeup from Chuck James that David Wright crushed in the fifth inning to continue his May renaissance.

"The changeup ... I think it's the best pitch in the game," Tom Glavine said.

And Glavine will try to reinforce that point Thursday night in the final game of this important, not critical, series.

Lo Duca explained that the pitches Perez used for the two critical outs were actually splitters, but that they serve the same purpose as a change of pace.

"Call it what you want," he said. "They're offspeed and very effective. He's turned into a monster."

With most of his pitches working well, Perez allowed four hits and two walks. He struck out five and hit two batters, putting his record at 6-3, his ERA at 2.54 and his image in the Braves' consciousness. He has won seven times since joining the Mets last summer, and beaten the Braves four times. His ERA against them this season is 1.30. And no other Met has beaten them.

"You've gotta believe Omar [Minaya, the Mets' general manager] over there pulled a [John] Schuerholz," Diaz said, referring to the Braves' general manager. "He saw a guy in another team struggling, got him over here and got his coaches to work with him and has got him turned around.

"Tonight, he had his stuff early. We're not the only ones he's pitching well against. We'll have to change our game plan next time we face him, but a lot of teams have to change their game plan next time they face him."

Perez was supported by Wright's eighth home run this month and two one-run rallies by the Mets' revamped batting order. Randolph started his 20th different order, this one with slumping Carlos Delgado batting sixth for the first time since 1997, Wright batting cleanup and Shawn Green second. The result was just enough offense to secure the Mets' 10th win in 13 games in which they have been opposed by a left-handed starter, and their 15th in 21 road games.

Delgado had two singles, one in the fourth when the Mets scored their second run against James (4-4), and said his four turns at the plate were "the best four at-bats I've had all year and they were back to back to back ..."

His average at .216, Delgado faces John Smoltz on Thursday. He has a .344 average and four home runs in 32 career at-bats against him.

Delgado was sure the change in the order had no bearing on his swing. So was Randolph.

"I'm just lucky," the slugger said. "I'm living in a tree."

The revised batting order produced the first run with one out in the third with an assist from the Braves' defense. The Mets had Jose Reyes on second and Green on first after a walk and a single. Randolph used one of his favorite weapons, a double steal. The throw from rookie catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia to second base arrived before Green, but second baseman Martin Prado arrived late and the ball bounced away, allowing Reyes to score for the 38th time this season.

Singles by Lo Duca, Delgado and Damion Easley, and a sacrifice fly by Carlos Gomez produced a second run in the fourth. And Wright's fourth home run in four games afforded Perez a three-run margin for error he didn't need.

"I'm not sure I expected everything he's done so far," Randolph said. "But its exciting to see what he's become and exciting to think what he might become."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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