Saturday, February 24, 2007

Oliver's Army

This is #3 of 5 Key Mets for 2007.

It is Sunday Morning, October 15th, 2006.

The previous night, the Mets had been stymied by Jeff Suppan, losing game 3 of the NLCS, and falling behind in the series, 2 games to 1. Things look grim. Especially looking ahead to Game 4, and who will be taking the ball for the Mets that evening.

That would be Oliver Perez.

A hard-throwing left hander, with a killer fastball and suspect control. That was Oliver Perez when he first reached the Major Leagues with the San Diego Padres in 2002. He made his Major League debut at age 20. In 2003, he would be dealt from the Padres to the sad sack Pittsburgh Pirates, amidst an unspectacular season that saw him post mediocre numbers, albeit a high number of strikeouts.

Perez would harness his talent in 2004. Despite pitching in a pitcher's park, on one of the major's worst teams, Perez would put together a breakout season. 12 Wins. A 2.98 ERA in 30 starts. An eye-popping 239 strikeouts in merely 196 innings pitched. An ace. A star in the making.

And it all fell apart very quickly. Perez failed to build on his success in 2005. By mid-2006, Perez was sent to the minors, in the midst of a miserable campaign that saw his ERA balloon to over 6.

And then he was dealt once again. This time as an ignominious throw-in to an emergency deal made with the Mets, along with Roberto Hernandez, following the injury to Duaner Sanchez. Perez was seen as little more than a hopeless reclamation project, and began his Mets career in AAA ball.

Recalled to the Mets in late August, Perez did little to excite Mets fans about his future with the team. He struggled in his first few starts. But on September 6th, in the 2nd game of a doubleheader with the Braves, Perez showed a glimpse of what he could be, tossing a 5-hit shutout. Still, he ended the season in inconsistent fashion, and left the Mets and their fans with little to no confidence in his ability to succeed if he were to be called upon in the postseason.

Surely, he wouldn't be needed...

Then the injuries hit. Suddenly, the Mets fourth playoff starter was a man who boasted a 3-13 record, with an ERA over 6 for the regular season. Fortunately, he wasn't needed as the Mets wiped out the Dodgers in the NLDS. But he would appear in the NLCS. On that Sunday night. And in the most crucial game of the Mets season.

And he delivered.

No, he wasn't great. But considering that all the Mets wanted him to do was keep them in the game, the Mets had to be thrilled. He gave up 5 runs in 5.2 innings, but most of the damage against him was done long after the game was out of reach.

That would pale in comparison to what would face him 4 nights later.

Pitching once again to save the Mets hide, Perez would again deliver in the most crucial game of his life. Pitching on a national stage, pitching to save the Mets season, and perhaps pitching to save his own career. Perez slowly but steadily kept the Cardinal hitters off balance through most of the evening.

Six innings, 1 run. Yes, he would be bailed out by Endy Chavez making the greatest catch ever. But nonetheless, Willie stuck with him, the Mets stood behind him, and Perez didn't let anyone down. There are a lot of Mets players who can shoulder the blame for the NLCS loss last season. Oliver Perez is not one of them.

But still, questions remain about Perez as we enter 2007. Can he repeat his success in the playoffs? Has Rick Peterson solved his problems? Will he be able to recapture his form of 2004? Will he even be in the Mets starting rotation this year?

Oliver Perez went a long way last October to convincing Mets fans that he was more than "just a throw-in" to a trading deadline deal. But now it's up to him to keep us believing in him. We know that Willie Randolph loves him. We know that hitters have raved about his stuff. But can he translate it all into success? We shall see...

If he does, we got us a hell of a pitcher here.

Remember the sign in the stands at Shea that last night in October...

"Oliver's army is here to stay
Oliver's army are on their way"
-Elvis Costello

No comments: