PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - As the incumbent No. 3 starter, with a $36-million contract, Oliver Perez's biggest worry is staying healthy. His job is safe, and Perez should consider himself fortunate that he is not competing with Hisanori Takahashi, who stole the show Sunday at Tradition Field.
Takahashi, trying to make the Mets as a 35-year-old rookie, had six strikeouts and allowed only a single during his scoreless three innings. He struck out the side in the fourth on 10 pitches - starting with eight consecutive strikes - and threw only eight balls in 42 pitches overall.
The Mets are unsure of how they want to use Takahashi. But after his eye-opening performance, Jerry Manuel said he'll find a spot for him somewhere on the Opening Day roster if he continues to pitch like that.
"If we were to speak today, and not having much history with him, I would say that he would definitely be one of the 11 or 12 pitchers that we take," Manuel said. "How we use him - I'd probably have to visit that at some other point."
Jon Niese remains the favorite for the fifth starter's job, but Takahashi could be slotted into a long relief role, where there's a vacancy. The bullpen as a whole is largely unsettled, especially with Kelvim Escobar's shoulder condition making the eighth-inning setup role an open competition. Only seven games into the Grapefruit schedule, Takahashi is right up there with Jenrry Mejia in turning in the most impressive outings to date.
Asked if he was nervous in his major-league debut, Takahashi replied through an interpreter, "Not at all. I had fun."
As for Perez, he made his first start of any kind since Aug. 23, his last before he was shut down for season-ending knee surgery, and had a mixed performance. Perhaps the best thing is that the "New Ollie" threw strikes, and in doing so, his fastball got knocked around a little: seven hits and five runs in three innings against the Nationals. But his main focus was staying around the plate while mixing in his changeup and "slurve," a slower combination of slider and curve. He didn't use his signature swing-and-miss pitch, a hard slider that breaks out of the zone, and he walked only one.
"I was nervous," he said. "My blood was really pumping. But I'm feeling fine. That's my goal - I didn't feel any pain."
Perez was reduced to being the opening act for Takahashi's debut, which attracted more than a dozen Japanese reporters and a couple of TV crews. Adding to the intrigue was his earlier visa issues, which delayed his first major-league appearance until Sunday and had forced him to work out last week at the Mets' academy in the Dominican Republic as he awaited clearance to return.
Takahashi, famous in Japan for his 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, baffled the Nationals. Perez can make pitching look extremely difficult, but it should not appear as easy as Takahashi made it seem in striking out six in three innings.
After taking over for Perez, Takahashi didn't throw a ball until he went to 0-and-2 on Jason Maxwell, eventually his third strikeout of the fourth. Takahashi whiffed Maxwell and Alberto Gonzalez that inning with what he called an "outside sinker." But pitching coach Dan Warthen described it as a "shuuto," or screwball, and the Nationals, judging by their swings, had no idea what they were looking at. "He carves up the plate as well as anybody," Warthen said.
Takahashi's fastball usually stays in the range of 86 to 88 mph, but he did touch 90 on his final pitch, which Willy Taveras popped up to rightfield. But velocity is mostly irrelevant for Takahashi, who can freeze hitters with a deceptive fastball that splits the plate.
"Those are instincts," Warthen said. "Those are things that Johan Santana does. This guy is looking so much for my changeup, I'll throw something right down the middle. That's wonderful to watch."