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Payton, Perez Ruffling a Few Feathers

NLCS: Unheralded Met rookie duo coming up with timely contributions against the Cardinals.


NEW YORK — Neither took what would be considered a traditional path to the major leagues. And neither is what you'd call a traditional rookie.

But then again, center fielder Jay Payton and right fielder Timo Perez aren't exactly acting like first-year players for the New York Mets. The duo's inspired and confident postseason play has paced the Mets to a 2-0 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League championship series, which resumes today at Shea Stadium.

"They have meant a lot here, in terms of giving us a different look, a different dimension," said Omar Minaya, the Mets' senior assistant general manager. "They've given us speed in the outfield that we didn't have at this time last year."

Payton, 27, and the diminutive and fleet Perez, 23, may be batting only .250 and .200, respectively, in the series but both have done enough in the first two games to ruffle the Cardinals' feathers.

"They're very aggressive and have a lot of talent so it's been a boost for their club," St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa said. "But we've seen the same thing with our [rookies].

"It's one of those nice balances you look for. You like those young guys that come out there full of vim and vigor. Then you have the veterans that still have that excitement but understand what the experience is all about. [Payton and Perez have] been impressive."

Payton, batting in the No. 7 spot, hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning of the Mets' 6-2 Game 1 victory. And his ninth-inning, run-scoring single in Game 2 gave the Mets a 6-5 victory. Perez, the 5-foot-9, 167-pound left-hander, rebounded from an 0-for-4 start Thursday, singling to the opposite field in the eighth inning before coming around to score from first . . . on a single to shallow center field in Game 2. In fact, both Perez and Payton have five-game hitting streaks dating to the divisional playoffs.

"Timo, as our leadoff batter, he's a catalyst, he gets things going," Minaya said. "And Jay not only gives us speed in center field, he can drive the ball. The fact that both of those guys took such different paths to get here makes it somewhat surprising.

"Jay was injured [while playing] in triple-A last year and Timo was in Japan."

Payton was a can't-miss first-round draft pick of the Mets in 1994. At Georgia Tech, he had played with Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and catcher Jason Varitek.

Payton excelled in his first two years in the minors, batting .365 at Class-A Pittsfield, where he was named team MVP, and .345 with 14 home runs at double-A Binghamton. But injuries began to complicate his career track to Queens.

In 1996, he underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from his right (throwing) elbow and he missed the 1997 season after a second surgery, this one to repair a ligament in the elbow.

He came back in 1998 and made it to triple-A Norfolk but spent time on the disabled list with a troublesome right hamstring. He had two tours of duty with the Mets that summer and batted .318 in 15 games.

But Payton's 1999 campaign began with off-season surgery on his left shoulder, and he was put back on the disabled list again, this time with an oblique strain. The injuries limited Payton to 13 games as a Met in 1999 and he batted only .250.

He has been injury-free this season, though, and in 149 games batted .291 with 17 homers and 62 runs batted in, making a strong case for NL rookie of the year along with probable winner Rafael Furcal of the Atlanta Braves.

"It's been great and I'm just excited to be able to finally contribute and play the game," Payton said. "To be on a playoff team with a chance to go to the World Series, that's just the icing on the cake."

Perez, meanwhile, got his chance to shine when Derek Bell went down with a high right-ankle sprain in Game 1 of the Mets' division series against the San Francisco Giants.

It's been a long and strange journey for the Dominican Republic native, who was playing in the Japanese minor leagues early this year before signing with the Mets as a free agent on March 17.

Perez batted .357 in 72 games at Norfolk and was named team MVP. He was called up on Aug. 30 and batted .286 in 24 games with the Mets.

He had three hits in his first postseason start, against the Giants in Game 2. The only other Met rookie who had three hits in his first postseason start is Gregg Jefferies, who did it against the Dodgers in Game 1 of the 1988 National League championship series.

Besides playing Giant killer, Perez had the thrill of competing against his idol, Barry Bonds.

"I look up to guys like that," Perez said. "Maybe, one day, the young players will look up to me like that too."

Met Manager Bobby Valentine is a believer.

"Everyone says that success breeds confidence," Valentine said. "But another thing that breeds confidence is talent.

"Jay Payton and Timo Perez have a great deal of talent and I think that because of my acknowledgment of their talents, I'm not surprised by their confidence."

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