ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves on Friday discovered that all it takes to solve the mystery of mercurial fifth starter Odalis Perez is to match him against an even bigger enigma.
The Los Angeles Dodgers.
Facing the major leagues' version of The Riddler, Perez produced the best start of his young career. The diminutive left-hander has scuffled to reclaim the effectiveness of his first brush with the bigs last year, but he literally found the inside scoop Friday. Going where he was afraid to go before, Perez ventured inside on hitters and mixed his repertoire well in an impressive 4-2 victory over the Dodgers.
"He has had a great attitude after his last start," said manager Bobby Cox. "He said he was going to throw the ball inside, move it around, and throw strikes, and he did. He did just what he said he was going to do. He was outstanding.
"That's one of the better ball games I've seen pitched all year -- for us or against us."
A Turner Field crowd of 41,953 saw the Braves win their fourth straight game and ninth in 13 games by scoring two runs in the fourth inning and two more in the fifth. The Dodgers, whose payroll of just under $80 million ranks third in baseball, fell to 24-23 with their eighth loss in their last 13 games.
Perez thoroughly outpitched veteran Darren Dreifort, who is tied with Kevin Brown and Ismael
Valdes for the Dodgers' team lead with five victories. Perez improved to 3-2 by pitching 8 1/3 shutout innings and allowing six hits. He struck out one and walked one.
After yielding 21 earned runs in 28 innings over his last five outings, Perez surrendered but two as Eric Young led off the ninth with a walk, and Raul Mondesi lifted his National League-leading 18th home run just over the leftfield wall and beyond the outstretched glove of Gerald Williams.
On came closer John Rocker, who recorded his ninth save in 11 opportunities by blowing away Eric Karros and Todd Hundley on strikeouts.
"I can say I was mixing my pitches, and I was throwing inside a little bit, and every time I pitched inside they hit a ground ball or a foul ball. Every time you throw inside with good location, you're going to get outs," Perez said. "I was ready for the game. I came to the ballpark ready for the game, because the last two or three games I've been giving up too many runs."
Friday's start was vastly different from Perez's previous one, when the Chicago Cubs took his failure to pitch inside and belted him out of the park. He surrendered three home runs after giving up only one in his first seven appearances. He yielded five earned runs and lasted only six innings after pitching only 8 2/3 innings in his previous two starts combined.
Then came Friday, when Perez looked like he could be a staple in Atlanta's rotation for years to come. Though he stumbled in the ninth, the Braves were thrilled with a performance that included 76 strikes among 114 pitches.
Mondesi said he hit a slider and was prepared for it because Perez slipped into the habit of pitching outside almost exclusively against him.
"I was just trying to make contact," Mondesi said. "Most of the time he pitched me away. He threw me a slider. He threw one too many."
Dreifort (5-3) sailed smoothly until the fourth, when he collapsed. Javy Lopez led off with a walk and advanced to second on Ryan Klesko's single to center. Andruw Jones loaded the bases with a flared two-strike single to right, and Lopez scored on Williams' fielder's choice grounder to short.
Perez still doesn't have a major league hit, but he notched his first RBI when he grounded to shortstop, scoring Klesko for a 2-0 lead.
The Braves doubled their lead the next inning. Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan each singled with one out, Chipper Jones reaching third. After Lopez walked, Chipper Jones and Jordan scored when third baseman Adrian Beltre booted Klesko's grounder.
Chipper Jones finished 2-for-3 with a walk and in his last 14 games is hitting .360 (18-for-50) with three home runs, six RBI and five runs.
Yet the night belonged to Perez, who was so stellar that Cox was unusually effusive and called the performance "a beauty."
It was beauty wrought by the beast that is professional baseball.
"It was very important," Perez said of his outing, "because Bruce (Chen) came, and the last two games he has been pitching great. And if I don't pitch well tonight they might keep Bruce on the team and send me down to TripleA. ... I don't know what's going to happen, but I pitched well and we'll go from there."