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05/23/07 11:50 PM ET

Braves held in check by Perez, Mets

Three of lefty's six wins this year have come against Atlanta

ATLANTA -- There was a point earlier this season when it seemed like the Braves were the only team baffled by Oliver Perez. Now it's become apparent they are simply one of many teams that this rejuvenated Mets southpaw is victimizing.

While Perez was combining for just three wins in 22 combined starts with the Pirates and Mets last season, there was reason to believe his once-promising career could be nearing its end. But by the time the Braves exited Turner Field after Wednesday night's 3-0 loss to the Mets, they were once again convinced that this 25-year-old southpaw has nothing but a bright future ahead of him.

"I think he's one of the toughest guys we've seen," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, whose team fell 2 1/2 games behind the front-running Mets in the National League East race.

Entering Thursday's rubber match which will pit John Smoltz against Tom Glavine, the Braves have won five of the eight games they've played against the Mets this season. The three losses that they've suffered have come in the three games that Perez has taken the mound.

"I'm pretty impressed with [Perez]," Braves left fielder Matt Diaz said. "He throws 94 miles per hour, spots his backdoor slider and throws enough pitches."

Perez, who allowed four hits in seven scoreless innings, is 3-0 with a 1.31 ERA in three starts against the Braves this year. But the fact that he's now 4-1 with a 1.62 ERA in five May starts is proof that he doesn't simply save his best stuff for the boys from Atlanta.

"He's been doing that against the entire league, not just our team," said Cox, who saw his team strand eight runners and go hitless in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position.

While Perez has resurrected a seemingly lost career, Chuck James is searching for the form he displayed during last year's successful rookie season. When the Mets knocked him out of this game with just two outs in the fifth inning, it marked the seventh time in 10 starts that he was unable to complete more than 5 1/3 innings.

"It sure would be nice to get back to normal," said James, who allowed three runs -- two earned -- on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings.

James, who allowed two earned runs or less in nine of his final 11 starts last year, incurred an unfortunate early deficit when second baseman Martin Prado was unable to see catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia's throw during a double steal in the third inning. When the ball got away from Prado, Jose Reyes trotted home with the only run Perez would need to capture his fourth win in his past five starts against the Braves.

After three straight singles to begin the fourth inning led to another Mets run, James began to labor. He exited after allowing a David Wright homer and a Paul Lo Duca double in the fifth inning.

"It's just kind of the same thing all year," said James, who has won just twice since grabbing victories in his first two starts of the year. "I can't get in a groove out there where it just feels like I can let it go and feel like I've got a lot of power behind my pitches and a lot of life on them. I feel like my ball is flat and I'm kind of throwing with all arm."

Perez, who has notched four of his nine wins since the beginning of last year at the expense of the Braves, had his backdoor slider moving in baffling fashion. After surrendering consecutive one-out, first-inning singles to Chipper Jones and Edgar Renteria, he settled into a groove. The only other two hits he allowed were leadoff singles to James in the third and to Saltalamacchia in the seventh.

"He was very effective with his backdoor slider," Diaz said. "He started it in the left-handed batter's box and broke it right over the outside corner. I came and looked at film, and it's like, 'Is that really coming all the way back?' And sure enough it was. It was catching that corner."

Proving that he's no longer simply a hard-throwing lefty with an occasionally effective curveball, Perez fooled Diaz with a 2-2 changeup in the third inning with two outs and the bases loaded. The Atlanta left fielder, who popped the delivery into shallow right field for a harmless flyout, said he'd never seen the Mets hurler even throw the changeup before.

"You just have to tip your hat to him," Diaz said. "Chuck went out there and threw well enough to win. We just couldn't get the job done against Perez."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.