PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Outings like the one Oliver Perez had Saturdayafternoon make spring training something akin to a riddle.
The results were outstanding - four hitless innings - and everyone left pleased. Manager Jerry Manuel and pitching coach Dan Warthen even cited a new and improved version of the erratic lefthander, saying Perez now has the ability to identify his mechanical struggles and stop the ensuing downward spiral.
But although Perez's pitching line in the Mets' 9-1 win over the Tigers clearly was a step forward from his forgettable spring training debut (three innings, seven hits, five earned runs), a closer look shows that a few potholes remain.
You can begin with his less-than-desirable 31-to-26 strike-to-ball ratio and then move on to the lack of strikeouts. He wasn't missing many bats Saturday, which is what he usually does best when he's on.
Finally, the last out of the third inning - a liner to deep leftfield by Carlos Guillen - would have been a three-run homer if the wind hadn't been gusting in from that direction.
Yes, this is a game in which results are all that matters. And considering how the same guy imploded against the Nationals on March 7, Perez and the Mets had more than enough reason Saturday to feel as if they are seeing real progress.
"What we're seeing now with Ollie is, Ollie has had some revelation of his own mechanics, and that's important," Manuel said. "So when it gets out of whack, you don't just tell him. He knows what he has to go out and perfect to get back to what he understands as good mechanics."
What Warthen liked the most from Perez was that his ball "stayed true." That means that when Perez missed his location, his pitch still went in the direction in which he wanted it go, only too far. In the past, Perez's pitches had a tendency to run back over the plate, which obviously got him in trouble.
There still was the Jekyll-and-Hyde moment for Perez in which it was easy for everyone to see his pitching come apart. It started with two outs and nobody on in the third inning.
Perez missed on a 2-and-2 inside fastball to Audy Ciriaco. The pitch could have gone either way. Plate umpire Laz Diaz called it a ball, and Perez followed by walking Ciriaco and Ramon Santiago, throwing six balls in a span of seven pitches.
With two on, Guillen crushed a fastball from Perez deep to leftfield. Thanks to a strong wind, Angel Pagan ran it down on the warning track. Crisis averted.
Perez credited himself with not unraveling in that spot, saying he knows how to handle it now.
"Sometimes before, when I threw a bad pitch, I would get mad and sometimes I would get lost," he said. "That's what I learned. When you throw a bad pitch, you have to come back with a good pitch to get outs."
Sure, the wind helped, but the Mets at least have to be encouraged that Perez knows what to do when the going gets tough.
Has the light bulb finally gone on for the lefthander?
Manuel laughed. "With Ollie, I don't know," he said. "It's dim. Right now it's a little dim, but that's OK. It's all good."