New York Mets pitcher Oliver Perez

PORT ST. LUCIE – Oliver Perez has gotten rid of his modest Mohawk and grown a beard. But of much greater interest to the Mets than the lefthander’s follicle follies, Perez declared himself “strong,” with no lingering knee problems after an injury-wrecked 2009 season.

After spending the winter training in Phoenix at a well-regarded facility with other major leaguers at the Mets’ behest, Perez undoubtedly is in better shape than a year ago. Last March, Perez drew criticism from pitching coach Dan Warthen for returning from the World Baseball Classic unprepared for a major-league season.

Perez relocated this offseason from his native Culiacan, Mexico, to Arizona to train at Fischer Sports, the facility credited with preparing Randy Johnson during his career. Other than two weeks spent in Mexico around Christmas, Perez said he’s spent the entire winter in Phoenix working out at that training center with major leaguers including Kerry Wood, Chris and Shelley Duncan, Sergio Mitre and Mike Hampton.

“A lot of good players there,” Perez said.

Perez said he’s religiously at the facility by 7 a.m. and stretching 90 minutes later.

The southpaw went 3-4 with a 6.82 ERA in 14 starts in 2009, in the first season of a three-year, $36 million deal. He spent May 7-July 8 on the disabled list with right patellar tendinitis, and ultimately underwent Sept. 1 surgery to remove scar tissue from the knee.

“Right now I don’t feel anything,” he said Monday. “I think that’s why I’m really happy. I feel really strong.”

Of course, Perez’s trademark wildness comically remained Monday. As he long-tossed with Johan Santana on a windy morning at the Mets’ complex, Perez twice overshot Santana with throws on a back field and cleared a fence.

“It’s going to take a couple of weeks,” Santana turned and offered with a smile.

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