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Mets(16-15) vs. Dodgers (19-14) 10:10 PM


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Oliver Perez is used to the struggles. Just not the contention.


Following a start in which Perez lasted only 1 2/3 innings against the Pirates to take his toughest loss of the season, closer Billy Wagner spoke out about his teammate, claiming that Perez needed to "step up," bear down and know when to help an already-taxed bullpen. The comments stuck, though Perez never really responded.


Now, on the mound at Dodger Stadium, he can. Perez will start on Monday for the first time since Wagner's comments, opening a three-game series in Los Angeles.


"I hope he pitches better," manager Willie Randolph said. "He should."


If indeed Perez can pitch better, then perhaps the rest of these Mets might play better, too. They seemed to turn a corner of sorts in Arizona, winning handily on Friday night and then taking a tight finale from the Diamondbacks on Sunday. A lopsided Saturday loss aside, the Mets are entering Los Angeles looking better -- and feeling healthier -- than they have in recent weeks.


Now with their projected Opening Day lineup finally intact, the Mets have a chance to climb back on top of a National League East Division that hasn't left them too far behind. Monday's game marks the first of three against the Dodgers, before the Mets head back home next weekend.


Forced to face two of the better Dodgers pitchers in Hiroki Kuroda and Brad Penny later this week, the Mets didn't necessarily draw an easy assignment on Monday, either. Despite his struggles, former first-round Draft pick Chad Billingsley has still struck out 40 batters over 27 2/3 innings this season -- a testament to his raw ability.


And the Dodgers, despite their loss on Sunday, have still won eight of their past 10 games, making them just as much of a challenge as the streaking Diamondbacks were this weekend.


"You always want to test yourself against the best competition around," Randolph said. "And I think that makes us better, too, when we have to go up against the best."


Pitching matchup

NYM: LHP Oliver Perez (2-2, 4.03 ERA)

Perez's inability to deal with adversity, most of it of his own making, overwhelmed him again in his loss to the Pirates at Shea Stadium on Wednesday. He faced 16 batters, walked five, allowed two hits and hardly responded well to an error made behind him. He has walked 21 batters in 29 innings, and the Mets have lost four of his six starts. Yet in two starts against the Dodgers last season, Perez finished 2-0 with a 0.63 ERA.


LAD: RHP Chad Billingsley (1-4, 5.20 ERA)

Billingsley finally hit the win column with seven solid innings in Florida on Wednesday. For the fourth consecutive start, Billingsley struck out at least eight batters, and the only run he allowed on Wednesday came on an infield single. He walked four, hit a batter and made two wild pitches, but he pitched out of a pair of jams to pick up the victory. He'll be starting against the Mets for the first time in his career.



Orlando Hernandez (recovery from right foot surgery) will travel to New York this week to have his foot, currently in a boot, re-evaluated. There is no timetable for his return. ... Matt Wise (right forearm contusion) threw two scoreless innings of relief for Class A St. Lucie on Saturday, and he will pitch in back-to-back games this week. He could return during the team's next homestand, scheduled to begin on Friday. ... Ramon Castro (strained right hamstring) caught seven innings for St. Lucie on Saturday, finishing 0-for-3. He could also return by the homestand. ... Moises Alou, credited with a hit in his first at-bat on Friday night, had it changed to an error. He picked up his first hit in his final at-bat on Sunday. ... Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent holds a .348 average against Perez in 23 career at-bats.




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This is what .500 teams do. They win a few, then lose a few and at the end of the day are even steven. I am use to it, its being going on for a year now.


How anyone fails to recognize this team as nothing more than a .500 team is beyond me. Its not 2006 and in the case of Delgado, Alou and Castillo and Pedro its not 1998

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Luis Castillo entered this season having amassed 1,720 at-bats in the second spot of the lineup. Ryan Church entered the year having hit there only 40 times. And logic made a clear case for who the more appropriate second hitter might be.


Yet logic, in this game, has a funny way of being wrong.


So it is with the Mets, who have seen Castillo fizzle and Church flourish in the second spot of the lineup. Manager Willie Randolph insisted last week that the switch would be temporary, and that he considered Castillo one of the most valuable second hitters in the game. But as long as Castillo continues to struggle, and as long as Church continues to lead the team in hitting, logic -- pesky logic -- makes the current arrangement the more productive one.


That's not apt to change when the Mets play their third and final game at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, though the team can only hope that Castillo's struggles will. Entering Tuesday night in an 0-for-18 slump, Castillo reached base in each of his first three at-bats of the game, which could help spark something of a resurgence.


"Just like the rest of the guys, Luis is a guy who's proven in the past that he can hit Major League pitching," Randolph said. "He'll get going again, and I'm not concerned."


For proof, Randolph referenced last September, when Castillo rapped out 13 hits over the season's final seven games, a stretch that coincided with his 12-game hitting streak.


"I'm feeling," Randolph said, "like he's going to do that again."


If he can, the Mets offense would click another significant piece back into place, and perhaps begin winning with some consistency once again. In the two weeks since taking five straight games from the Nationals and Phillies in mid-April, they have gone 6-9.


They'll look for John Maine, the only Mets starter to win during his most recent turn in the rotation, to right things on Wednesday. Maine has struck out 19 batters over his last 17 innings, hinting at the form that saw him cruise through most of Spring Training.


He'll be opposed by Dodgers ace Brad Penny in the Wednesday afternoon game.

Pitching matchup

NYM: RHP John Maine (3-2, 3.48 ERA)

Maine was inefficient in his latest outing, needing 107 pitches to complete six innings against the Diamondbacks, but wriggling out of two separate jams to allow only two runs in total. The effort was enough to net Maine his third win of the season, tying him with Jorge Sosa and Johan Santana for the club lead. Maine lost to the Dodgers twice in two starts last year, finishing with a 5.73 ERA.


LAD: RHP Brad Penny (5-2, 3.19 ERA)

Penny didn't have his velocity or command when he spotted the Rockies a three-run lead in wintry conditions at Coors Field, but he still picked up his ninth consecutive victory over Colorado. Although he went 2-1 against the Mets last year, he's 5-11 with a 5.66 ERA against them lifetime.



Pedro Martinez threw a side session on Tuesday, and could pitch to live batters in a batting practice session later this week. That would mark the first time he's faced hitters since landing on the disabled list on April 2. ... The Mets don't plan on discussing until Thursday who they might send to the Minors to make room for reliever Matt Wise, though Joe Smith and Sosa remain the most likely candidates. Wise, rehabbing from a right forearm contusion, pitched one scoreless inning with two strikeouts on Tuesday for Class A St. Lucie. ... Catcher Ramon Castro, rehabbing from a strained right hamstring, finished 1-for-3 with a run scored on Tuesday for St. Lucie. ... Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal has five hits, including one home run, in nine career at-bats against Maine. Furcal missed Tuesday's game with a stiff back. ... David Wright holds a .643 lifetime average in 14 at-bats off Penny.



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