And by contrast with the Mets’ National League-best 26-14 record going into the weekend, the Yankees stood at 18-21, 9.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox.
“This is a new era for us,” Mr. Minaya said of the Mets’ recent success. “Oliver represents that as a young, exciting player.”
Once the game started, it became clear that Mr. Perez didn’t have his best stuff.
On the third pitch of the game from Mr. Perez, Johnny Damon lined a single to left field. But he was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double, and Mr. Perez found himself with one out and nobody on. He promptly threw ball one to Derek Jeter, and after a strike, three more out of the zone. He fell behind Alex Rodriguez 2-0, but induced a groundout. He fell behind Jorge Posada 2-0 and eventually walked him. He came back to get ahead of Hideki Matsui, and was fortunate that his line drive was hit right at second baseman Damion Easley.
This was not in-command Oliver Perez, and Mets fans had reason to be worried. It was the form he had displayed just twice this season: during the Philadelphia debacle, and last week in San Francisco, when a pair of errors led to a six-run inning and his early departure.
Mr. Perez got through the second and third innings unscathed, but he was frequently behind in the count, even to pitcher Andy Pettitte, before coming back to record his only early-inning strikeout.
In the fourth, it looked like the control problems had caught up to him. With one out, he fell behind Jorge Posada 2-0, and one pitch later allowe
d a single. After falling into a 3-1 hole to Matsui, his next fastball ended up in the right-field stands. Perez and the Mets trailed 2-1.
But he didn’t break.
He got ahead of Melky Cabrera and induced a broken-bat groundout, then fanned Robinson Cano to end the inning. No meltdown.
The Mets went ahead on a two-run homer by Endy Chavez in the bottom of the inning.
Mr. Perez’s command didn’t return after that, at least not to the levels he’s achieved in most of his other starts.
He still threw first-pitch balls to 6 of the 13 batters he faced the rest of the way. But ball two did not often follow ball one, and none of the hitters he saw after the first inning reached ball four.
He didn’t overthrow in the sixth when Derek Jeter led off with a single, and Mr. Perez confronted Alex Rodriguez as the go-ahead run. Instead, Mr. Perez trusted his stuff, and sent A-Rod back to the dugout as a strikeout victim.
He got ahead of Johnny Damon 0-2 in the eighth inning; Mr. Damon battled back to 2-2, and on his 108th pitch, Mr. Perez struck out the Yankees’ leadoff hitter. He then exited to a standing ovation by an ecstatic, gigantic crowd at Shea.
Oliver Perez had managed to defeat, if not dominate, a lineup stacked with offensive stars. He did it on a night when his best command was elusive, and his fastball was less explosive than usual. But baseball’s truly elite pitchers don’t excel only when their pitches are otherworldly. They manage to keep their teams in games even on their off-nights. On Friday night, Oliver Perez finally showed himself capable of doing just that, with a sellout crowd and seemingly all of New York watching.
“Every game is going to be different, in terms of my stuff,” he said after it was over. “Today I was a little bit behind in the count. I just had to keep going and make the next pitch.”
His final numbers do not jump off the page—five strikeouts and two walks in 7 2/3 innings. But Friday night brought Oliver Perez closer to the day that his starts are the ones that the Mets and their fans look forward to.
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