Earlier Perez Comments Proved Prophetic

By Kevin Schneider

Chris Perez’s comments Tuesday focusing on his health and closing now seem more meaningful and telling.

Before the Cleveland Indians defeated their single-A affiliate Carolina Mudcats 13-0 Tuesday, Perez stopped to talk to a few other reporters and after signing fans’ memorabilia as batting-practice finished. He sounded confident he could close Thursday, against the Blue Jays.

“My body has responded,” Perez said.  “It might be a battle, but I feel good.”

In spring training, he suffered a left-oblique injury early and only recently saw game action.  Perez, pitched one inning each on March 29 and 31, and April 2 and never in the game’s final inning. He mentioned feeling good Tuesday after a recent bullpen session, but one wonders now if he was prepared.

“Battle” seems a good word to describe Perez’s ninth inning Thursday, when he gave up the tying three runs to the Toronto and made 31 pitches to blow the save in what would become the longest Opening Day game in Major League history.

Perez gave up three hits and two walks; his ERA now stands at 40.50. This can be demoralizing for a player who earned 36 saves in leading the Indians’ strongest unit, one that its nickname “Bullpen Mafia.” Perez is no rookie, after all; he’s used to trying situations.

But given Perez’s limited spring-training action and the magnitude of opening day, one wonders why manager Manny Acta didn’t turn to Vinnie Pestano, who finished Perez’s inning when called upon and then added a scoreless 10th, too. Sure, Perez has been the closer – last year. Many managers have eased closers back into action after injuries by getting them into mop-up action or pre-9th inning duty.

Perez seems like a player that always wants to play, even when tired or not 100 percent. His fastball’s velocity Thursday, as Rick Manning and Matt Underwood pointed out, touched 90-92 miles per hour, a little slower than normal.

True, the Tribe had numerous opportunities to blow away the Jays before the ninth inning.  And after the ninth-inning collapse, several Indians had the chance to get a game-winning hit or sacrifice fly and save the game – and win – for Perez. But they didn’t.

Long games like these, especially to start the season, can scar a team. Perez, a journalists’ and fans’ favorite for his bluntness and humor, drew boos Thursday. That’s not exactly a confidence builder for the 26-year-old closer. The Tribe lost a long, long game, and they’ll have an off-day to think about it.

But these moments also can further bring together the players in adversity. After the game, Perez didn’t hide but instead said he felt horrible. Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo expressed confidence in Perez as the team’s closer.

This seems like a good sign for a team that formed positive chemistry last year, which brings up more of Perez’s comments from earlier this week.

“We proved last year to ourselves that when we play well, we can compete,” he said.

When I asked him Tuesday about the importance of a strong start for the team, which built a surprise lead in the American League Central last year, Perez surprised me with his response.

“The start really doesn’t matter; it’s how you finish,” he said. “At the end of the year, we weren’t happy.”

He punched his words then and showed fire.  And that was before the Opening Day demise. Perez certainly isn’t happy now. The interesting part will be seeing how he and the rest of the young Indians use that feeling.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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