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Armed, Yes, But Dangerous?

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John Maine, says pitching coach Rick Peterson, must learn to think like a winner.  

Perez looks at Peterson and shrugs. He is a maddening talent who a half-decade ago was touted as Mexico’s next Fernando Valenzuela. He possesses a mid-nineties fastball and a wicked slider. But he was rushed to the majors at 20 and after some fleeting success imploded in an amalgamation of bad mechanics and temper tantrums. (He broke his toe kicking a laundry cart after a bad outing and missed about half of the 2005 season.) The lowly Pirates gave up on Perez in 2006, and Minaya picked him up on the cheap. During the team’s playoff run, Perez was typically unpredictable, pitching well, then disastrously, and finally, inexplicably, giving the Mets six innings of one-run ball in game seven of the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals. He showed more consistency in 2007, but still had the occasional breakdown.

Peterson ups the ante. “What if I told you, if you landed here, you’d make $10 million?” Perez’s eyes light up. It’s not clear if he’s gaslighting his coach or not, but he nods enthusiastically and gets to work. Over the next dozen pitches, he hits Peterson’s line about half the time.

“People see the way he is out on the mound and think he’s showboating,” says Peterson. “But that’s the way he acts on a practice field when no one is watching.” Peterson hopes that Santana and Martinez will keep Perez focused. “A healthy Martinez being here all year and a Johan Santana is really going to help ground Oliver. The best way for him to learn is through modeling. Who could be better models?” He then tells me his favorite Perez story. “Last year, Oliver got a hit. He then stole second. Then he ended up on third, and he starts dancing down the line. When he got back in the dugout I asked him, ‘Oliver, what the hell are you doing?’ He looked me and said, ‘Rick, I’m playing a game.’ ”

John Maine, the Mets’ other young starter, is a lanky, rosy-cheeked kid who’d easily win the contest of Met least likely to be involved in a “Page Six” scandal. Of course, this being New York, that’s exactly what happened. In the off-season, the Post reported that Maine offered a young lady $200 if he could try on her party dress at a nightclub. But Maine was back in Virginia and the whole story was a fraud.

If this had happened to another player—say, Gary Sheffield—lawsuits would have been filed and people might have been executed. But Maine seems blissfully not pissed off. “I don’t worry about that stuff,” he says. Maine finds himself the only native English speaker in the starting rotation, which suits his quiet way. “They might be making fun of me,” he says with a smile. “I don’t know what they’re saying half the time.”

Maine exudes a humility you’d want in a friend but not necessarily a Game 7 starter. He wasn’t supposed to be a star, so he lacks the swagger of a Martinez or a Glavine. Part of that is stuff-related. He has a decent fastball and slider, but he relies on perfectly locating his pitches and changing speeds. He can’t blow a batter away like Perez can, so he has to be ultraconfident in his pitch selection and location. When he hits his spots, he can be excellent, as he was in the first half of 2007 (ten wins, 2.71 ERA); when he doesn’t, he struggles to be average (five wins, 5.53 ERA in the second half). Still, it was Maine, not Glavine or Perez, who pitched seven and two-thirds innings of no-hit ball against the Marlins on September 29, saving their season for 24 hours.

“The thing with Johnny is making him realize what he can be,” says Peterson. “It’s like last year Clark Kent went into the phone booth and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to put the cape on. I say, Johnny, put it on.”

Last summer, Peterson read the stats of John Smoltz and Tim Hudson to Maine and asked what popped into his head. “Hall of Famer, top of the rotation,” responded Maine. Peterson then asked Maine what popped into his mind when he said the words, “John Maine.” “Major leaguer, in the rotation,” said Maine. Peterson then showed Maine that his stats were the equal of the two all-stars. “For a Pedro or a Springsteen, the greatness has always been there,” says Peterson. “It comes from the inside out. Johnny is evolving to that point.”

One morning, Peterson has Maine warm up with his eyes closed. “If you have the confidence that you can hit your spots with your eyes closed, what situation are you not going to be able to handle?” reasons Peterson.


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