Short of Johan Santana, and probably the returning Jose Reyes, the Mets believe that Oliver Perez could be the pivotal factor in their success or failure during the upcoming season.

Take a minute to let that sink in.

Deep breath, exhale. Maybe one more time.

And now here's why putting their faith in Perez might not be as scary as it once seemed for the Mets, who are anxious to see some return from the three-year, $36-million contract they gave the enigmatic lefthander before last season.

Good Ollie? Bad Ollie? How about a new-and-improved Ollie? Is anyone prepared for that?

"I know it's going to be a different Ollie because I know myself," Perez said from Port St. Lucie, where he already has been throwing bullpen sessions in advance of Thursday's reporting date for pitchers and catchers. "I know when I'm ready to compete and when I'm ready to help my team.

"I just have to focus to get everything together - my mechanics, my legs, my arms. I want to forget about what happened last year. We understand that it was really tough. The thing we have to focus on is 2010. We have to focus on the present."

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Rather than forgetting about 2009, however, the Mets have chosen to learn from that mistake in their dealings with Perez this offseason. The team was blindsided when Perez showed up in Port St. Lucie out of shape a year ago, and the Mets compounded the problem by letting him take off for the World Baseball Classic for what amounted to a monthlong spring break with Team Mexico.

That began a downward spiral for Perez, whose season mercifully was ended Sept. 1 by surgery to remove scar tissue from the patella tendon of his troublesome right knee.

It seems that more than his knee was repaired that day. Perez, through the guidance of his agent, Scott Boras, committed to spend the offseason in Arizona under the supervision of trainer Brett Fischer, who runs an athlete's boot camp named Fischer Sports.

"In talking to Ollie, I think he was embarrassed by last year," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "He was almost like a triple crown winner that winter, meaning he got the big contract, he got married. Mentally, he probably slipped into cruise mode."

That's a damning statement from Warthen, and the Mets weren't about to take any chances this time. Sure, it was great that Perez was shedding flab and building muscle in Arizona, but they still dispatched Warthen and trainer Mike Herbst to visit him once a month during the winter, even at the pitcher's home in Culiacan, Mexico, right after Christmas.

"It was a good time for us to go down there," Warthen said. "He still looked good. He was taking care of himself. He couldn't wait to get back to Arizona. The only negative I'd have to say was there were 23 people either shot or killed by machete during the three days we were there. It's a pretty interesting city."

In hindsight, was it really that necessary to travel to Culiacan? "We visit all the pitchers," Warthen said, "but Ollie was certainly the main guy because we feel that so much rides on him."

That includes the jobs of Warthen, manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya. Perez will get the remainder of his $36 million regardless of what happens during the next two seasons, but the Mets can't afford a repeat of 2009, when he went 3-4 with a 6.82 ERA in 14 starts.

From what they've seen from Perez, particularly during last month's minicamp, the Mets are considering last season an aberration.

"When you talk to Ollie this year, he seems like a different person," Warthen said. "Whether it's the maturity or whether something finally clicked, whatever. But he seems like a young man who wasn't trying to be funny with the rest of the guys, to be the jokester. He seems extremely focused and ready to take off in his career. This should be the time of his life right now."

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Perez estimates that he's in his best shape since maybe 2004, when he went 12-10 with a 2.98 ERA for the Pirates and struck out 239 in 196 innings. But that's easy to say in the days leading up to spring training. The toughest part still lies ahead.

"I've been working since September and I've been counting the days until spring training," he said. "Right now, I feel ready."