Healthy and Happy, Perez Ready to Close Games for New Teammates
Mike B. | On 30, Mar 2013
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the players that are difference makers in how successful the Indians season will be.
Chris Perez was outspoken throughout the 2012 season, calling out fans for not buying tickets, citing a disconnect between the clubhouse and the manager, and even blaming ownership for the Indians second-half collapse. But as the 2013 season begins, the accountability rests at the feet of one group.
“Now it is up to us to take care of business on the field and show the front office what they did was appreciated,” the Indians closer Perez said. “We need to improve upon our play for sure.”
The sometimes controversial and critical closer is one of just ten players who remain from last season’s Opening Day roster to be slated for the active 25-man roster again on Tuesday. While the team contended for the first half of the season, Perez earned his second straight All-Star appearance in 2012. However, as the season slipped away, Perez’s ninth inning opportunities wilted in the August sun. He still finished with a career-high 39 saves to go with a 3.59 ERA in 57.2 innings and 61 games.
But while Perez had personal success on the field, the Indians had their worst month in team history going 5-24 in August, running themselves out of playoff contention. The team barely eluded finishing in last place, but ended the 2012 campaign with a 68-94 record, still the sixth worst record in Major League Baseball. With Manager Manny Acta dismissed the final week of the season, the Indians quickly hired Terry Francona, and the beginning of a new attitude took shape in the organization.
“It’s exciting,” Perez said. “Definitely something needed to change, and they did a good job of changing not only the players but at the top with Terry and the mindset he brings and the credibility he brings of what he did in Boston.”
Of course the changes around the Indians organization did not stop at just hiring Francona. The team added Brett Myers, Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn this winter. Perez and Swisher previously were acquaintances, but Perez had no idea the Indians were in pursuit of the switch-hitting slugger even though they live five houses apart from each other in Florida.
“Unfortunately, I don’t follow up during the offseason, so when he signed, it was the first time I heard,” Perez said.
After the signing, Perez and Swisher played their own round of golf at their local country club. The two boisterous personalities hit it off, but their personalities aren’t what you expect to see on the golf course.
“We had a good time,” Perez said. “We’re probably not what our local country club and regular clientele are used to, but we’re paying members, too, so they have to put up with it. We have a good time. We have fun with it. We know we aren’t trying out for The Tour anytime soon.”
Equipped with a new set of teammates, Perez has had some setbacks this spring though. He was shut down for 10 days when he developed shoulder stiffness after a Feb. 26 appearance. The stiffness was treated as serious as a precautionary measure to guarantee his preparation for the season. His unfortunate setback cost him a chance to play in the World Baseball Classic for Team USA, but likely saved the beginning of his Indians’ season.
Perez has appeared only in four exhibition contests, but feels the preparation before the injury and the two appearances he made will better prepare him for the season than last year when he also was shelved for much of the spring.
“I feel like I’m further along, just command-wise and arm strength-wise,” Perez said. “I think having the first couple outings helped. Last year I felt rushed and I felt in a hurry. I feel good. I don’t feel like I’ve missed any time, even though I have.”
After being shut down for 10 days, Perez followed a return to pitch program, throwing from 60 feet, then 120 feet, before retaking the mound. He made his first appearance last Saturday, since the injury, pitching an inning in a minor league game. Perez did not allow a run Tuesday, but allowed four, including two home runs, in an inning of work Thursday against the San Diego Padres. He is scheduled to make his final Spring Training appearance today and feels he is healthy to begin the season.
“It feels good. No pain, no nothing,” Perez said. “It’s just a matter of getting my last appearance in and trying to tighten up my off speed pitches and command.”
Francona was not worried with Perez’s performance on Thursday, but acutally encouraged by his performance and how he feels in preparation for Tuesday’s opener in Toronto.
“I actually thought, besides getting two balls up in the zone, he was actually pretty good,” Francona said Friday of Perez. “He was free and easy and I think he feels good about himself.”
With Perez ready for Opening Day and expectations for the Tribe as high as they have been in a while, the back end of the bullpen will be expected to continue to lock up close ballgames. With Perez firmly cemented as the Indians closer, it makes it easier for Francona to define the roles of the other pitchers in the pen in front of him.
“When you have an anchor at the end, it makes it easier to build the rest of the bullpen, because you have an end point,” Francona said. “Your closer’s going to lose a few games—hopefully not a lot. But you always have a place to go, where as a manager you say, ‘Here’s the ball, go get them.’ You don’t have three guys warming up. When you do lose that rare game, there’s not a sense of panic on the team, so you can build it from the back.”
With Perez cited as the Tribe’s ending point to a successful game, a roster full of new faces and lofty expectations set by the closer himself, one might think the expectations and pressure could be a little loftier for Perez heading to this season. However, Perez is comfortable with the game on the line and the pressure put on the back end of the bullpen.
“Our expectations are the same every year,” Perez said. “There’s always pressure in the back end of the bullpen, whether you are a first place team or a last place team. Pressure is what you put on yourself. My job is the same every time. I look at it like that.”
With pressure and frustration of the past few seasons behind him and a clean bill of health heading into Opening Day, Perez is looking forward to a different kind of season. A season he’s very excited about.
“I’m excited just getting back to work,” Perez said. “This is what we do. We haven’t played meaningful games in a long time. The second half last year was long. It feels like it was its own season. To get back to coming to the field every day with positive attitudes every day is fun.”
Nothing too outspoken about that.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer