Now back, Perez plans to stay

mariners: After rocky period as a starter, Oliver Perez has returned to the majors as a relief pitcher

Staff writerJune 22, 2012 

When Oliver Perez sauntered in from the bullpen – a combination of a slow jog/fast walk – there were no boos. When the public address announcer’s voice echoed through Chase Field in Phoenix, “Now pitching for the Mariners, number 36, Oliver Perez,” there were no groans or jeers.

There was nothing except typical white noise from the crowd. Certainly not the sound of fans venting their frustrations at him.

Perez was finally back in the major leagues, and there was no anger, no vitriol, no blame for all that went wrong with a certain franchise located thousands of miles to the east. There was just baseball. There was just pitching. There was the possibility of a second life in the game.

“When I got the call, I was so excited,” Perez said. “I found out I was getting called up on Father’s Day, and it’s been very special to me to be back.”

Perez’s baseball rebirth was far from noteworthy. He pitched 1 innings in relief on Monday, allowing one hit, walking one and striking out one.

But don’t expect much more than that. It’s who he is now – a one- or two-inning pitcher, a reliever. His days as a starting pitcher are over.

“I think it is the best thing for his career,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “Go to the bullpen, reinvent himself and let his stuff play up, which it has.”

How exactly did Perez get to this point?

Well, you could ask New York Mets fans about that. They could describe the fall step by frustrating step.

You can almost see Perez wince a little when the Mets are mentioned.

The slide started shortly after he signed a three-year, $36 million contract in 2009 to stay in New York.

Was it too much money? Probably. But teams often overpay for pitching – particularly left-handed starting pitching – and Perez had his moments. In the 2007-08 seasons, Perez was a combined 25-17 with a 3.91 ERA in 63 starts. He struck out 354 but also walked 184 for a mediocre 1.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

The Mets were paying, and he accepted the money like any player would.

“It’s one of your goals to get the big contract, to get financial security for your family,” Perez said this week.

But things went downhill quickly. He had tendinitis in his right knee during the ’09 spring training. He went on the disabled list and stayed there for almost two months. He came back and struggled, going 3-4 with a 6.82 ERA in 14 starts, and earned the ire of the fans. The Mets finally shut him down in August so he could have surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon.

“It was the worst thing that could happen; you sign a big contract and then get hurt right away,” Perez said. “There’s expectations, and you don’t meet them.”

If 2009 was bad, 2010 was a catastrophe.

His velocity dipped from the low- to mid-90s to the high-80s, and his command was gone – in 33 innings, he walked 28. The knee was shaky. After going 0-3 with a 5.94 ERA, Perez was demoted to the bullpen by then-Mets manager Jerry Manuel.

After more struggles, the Mets asked Perez to go to Triple-A, but he refused. So they put him on the DL instead. He made a few more bullpen appearances and finished the season with a 0-5 record and 6.80 ERA.

By the end, Perez became the poster boy for overspending and all that was wrong with a team that would finish 79-83.

“Fans pay money for the games, you have to perform,” Perez said.

The Mets gave Perez one more chance in 2011, but he didn’t make it out of spring training. He was released a few weeks in, despite being owed $12 million.

Perez was 29-29 with a 4.71 ERA in 101 games over five seasons for the Mets.

He was signed by the Nationals and spent most of the season at Double-A Harrisburg. He never pitched his way out of the minors, going 3-5 in 16 starts and one relief appearance.

Perez had reached a crossroads.

“I didn’t tell anyone but my wife, but I was thinking I would retire after last year,” he said. “It was a tough three of years for me. I wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t fun.”

Then things changed.

“All of the people said, ‘You are still young and you have to keep working,’ ” he said. “Then we had my daughter. She was born Oct. 4. That’s when I started thinking I have to get back and do everything I can.”

So Perez pitched winter ball in his native Mexico. Finally healthy, his fastball was back at 92-94 mph.

“When I feel good with my legs, I think my velocity is there,” he said. “All my power is in my legs. I’m very flexible. You ask every pitcher, it’s a key for a starter or a reliever. All your support and your power comes from there.”

Perez started putting up good numbers, and Mariners assistant general manager Jeff Kingston noticed.

“One day Jeff said to me, ‘Have you seen what Oliver Perez is doing in Mexico?’ ” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “He brought in the numbers, and they were pretty impressive. I know some people down there; we made a call and (Jeff) kept on top of it.”

The Mariners sent West Coast scout Butch Baccala to see Perez. Baccala made good reports, so the Mariners offered Perez a minor league contract and an invitation to spring training as a reliever.

“No more starting,” Zduriencik said.

Perez came into spring healthy and in outstanding shape. He had worked on his routine as a reliever, playing catch every day.

He went to Triple-A Tacoma and performed well. Left-handed hitters, in particular, struggled against him. His fastball even touched 96 mph. With his contract stipulating either he be called up or released by June 15, the Mariners promoted him.

“One of the things we all discussed; here’s a left-hander throwing 95, 96, 97 (mph),” Zduriencik said. “There aren’t many doing that. He’s a veteran guy. Not that many years ago, he was a playoff starting pitcher. There’s a history of some success, there’s experience.”

Perez’s perseverance earned Wedge’s respect.

“He really committed to it,” Wedge said. “He made a strong impression on us. It’s been a long road for him. It’s been a tough road for him. But he hasn’t given up the fight.”

Perez is just happy for the chance.

“A lot of people tell me this can be your second career – I’m 30 years old,” he said. “I feel good. I hope to play many more years because of this. I want to play a lot of years and play a lot of baseball. That way I’m ready to retire when I decide to retire.”

Perez has a fan in Zduriencik.

“I’m really pulling for him,” he said. “I’m hoping he finds himself.”

ryan.divish@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8483 blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish

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