Perez, Takahashi keep ball in strike zone

Perez, Takahashi keep ball in strike zone

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Among the two-word phrases Jerry Manuel has worn out in this camp are pink eye, "Oh, no," and "Throw strikes." (Conjunctions count. Pitching and defense is three words). The Mets pitchers hemorrhaged walks last season -- wildness can be as contagious as conjunctivitis -- so Manuel has demanded his team to be less philanthropic. Throwing strikes can eliminate much of the need for "Oh, no" and its nasty cousin "Uh, oh."

With that objective in mind, the club imported Henry Blanco, the veteran catcher renowned for his ability to disguise pitches off the plate as strikes. Moreover, Manuel and pitching coach Dan Warthen have sought a permanent restraining order on pitches outside the strike zone.

For now and the next four weeks, strikes are preferable to almost any other pitching commodity. Certainly victories in this citrus setting mean little; seldom are they indicative of what is to follow. But habitual strike throwing in this prenatal stage of a season can be the forerunner of improvement. The concept is practice what you pitch.

So it was Sunday afternoon when Oliver Perez, a leading philanthropist, and Hisanori Takahashi, a virtual unknown, were to make their first appearances of the spring. The staff wanted control and, if at all possible, precision from each. And in performances with decidedly different impact, Perez and Takahashi accommodated.

Although he allowed five runs on seven hits and a walk in three innings, Perez pleased the dugout, throwing strikes on 33 of his 49 pitches, a handsome ratio for any pitcher, let alone one with issues.

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"Outside of the obvious numbers on the board, I thought it was an extremely positive day," Warthen said.

Manuel said he was "very satisfied" with Perez's work.

"We felt that if he could have a level of comfort out there and throw strikes, we would be satisfied with the way he was going," Manuel said. And the compliments for the perpetual work in progress seemed genuine, not part of a club campaign to reinforce the pitcher's confidence, similar to the campaign with Luis Castillo last spring.

Perez was pleased because he felt no pain in his surgically-repaired right knee. "My focus today was don't feel anything in my knee, because I know it's very different throwing in the bullpen and throwing in games," he said. "When I started not feeling anything, I started using all my pitches. My changeup was really good. My fastball wasn't in the spot I wanted, but I felt great."

Perez said he felt comfortable about his knee despite the fact that Nationals first baseman Mike Morse, who was batting fourth, hit his second home run in successive days against the Mets. Perez acknowledged a first-day nervousness. "I felt like a rookie," he said. And now, he said he will begin to focus on his pitch location.

And Takahashi, his command a near constant, threw pitch after pitch for strikes. He allowed one baserunner in three scoreless innings. Indeed, he struck out three batters in his first inning, the fourth, on 10 pitches. Call it a command performance.

Qualifying his remarks with "If we were to speak today, and not having much history with him, I would say he would definitely be one of the 11 or 12 pitchers that we take [to Opening Day]," Manuel said. "If you said, 'Hey, Jerry, take your best 12,' he'd have to be in that group somewhere." But a lack of options with Fernando Nieve and on contingency starters Nelson Figueroa and Pat Misch could interfere with that qualified projection.

Manuel and Warthen agreed Takahashi could serve as the second left-handed reliever, behind Pedro Feliciano, and, in Manuel's words, be "an interesting dynamic if we continue to see what we saw today." Because, in Warthen's words, "he has such good command and can throttle his pitches." A second left-handed reliever, Manuel said, "would be a comfort for me." The club retains interest in left-handed free agents Joe Beimel and Ron Mahay.

Takahashi expressed no preference for starting or relief. He characterized his pitching style as "throwing first-pitch strikes," and said his most effective pitch was an "outside sinker," known as a schuuto in Japan and characterized as a changeup with screwball movement by hitters.

He threw sliders and curves -- one in the low 60s -- and they made his fastball appear faster.

Omir Santos, Takahashi's catcher Sunday, likened the pitcher to Tom Glavine in that he rarely throws a ball over the middle of the plate, and then when he misses with a pitch, he misses properly.

"I caught him in the bullpen and said, 'If we see that in the game, it'll be like Johan [Santana],'" Santos said. And somewhere, someone else was saying, "It's still the first week of March."

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