PEORIA, Ariz. — Oliver Perez simply couldn’t say “no” when his country came calling. More important, there was no ounce of him that wanted to say no.
So while many players declined, Perez jumped at the chance to play for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic.
On Tuesday, he reported to Glendale, Ariz., to join his teammates in preparation for this weekend’s first-round games.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “You want to represent your country. It’s very exciting because all your family, all your friends and all your country supports you. They’re with you and they want you to do the best.”
Perez played for Mexico in 2009, and he said the exhilaration and pride of putting on that green-red-and-white jersey was something he cherishes. And playing for his country — not simply for a paycheck — was something Perez found himself getting caught up in.
“When you go to the Olympics or this kind of tournament, you
forget about everything,” he said. “You just want to win in that moment. You just want to win for your country.”
Leaving the Mariners in the middle of spring training isn’t the most ideal way to earn a roster spot. Despite signing a one-year, $1.5 million contract in the offseason, Perez isn’t guaranteed a place in the bullpen. But he was going to go unless the Mariners objected. They did not.
“The team gave me opportunity to go,” he said. “I’m going to keep working the same way because I know how important it is to be ready for the season.”
At 31, Perez is in a second incarnation of his baseball career. After he flamed out as a starter for the New York Mets, it seemed as though Perez would be destined to be remembered for what he didn’t accomplish after signing a three-year, $36 million contract with the Mets in the 2008 offseason.
But he experienced a rebirth as a reliever. The Mariners took a chance on him last offseason, signing him to a minor league deal after seeing him pitch in the Mexican pro league. The risk turned into a reward.
Perez started the season in Triple-A Tacoma, posting a 2-2 record with one save and a 4.65 earned-run average with 42 strikeouts in 22 relief appearances thanks to a rejuvenated fastball that was consistently in the mid-90s.
He was called up to the Mariners on June 16 and posted a 1-3 record with a 2.12 ERA in 33 relief appearances. The ERA was ninth-lowest by an American League reliever with a minimum of 30 appearances. He also had a stretch of 20 consecutive appearances from July 13-Sept. 14 without allowing a run, tied for the fourth-longest streak in club history.
Beyond the numbers, Perez has a better understanding of what it takes to be a reliever in the major leagues. He knows his routine and what he needs to do to prepare for the rigors of a 162-game season.
“I feel more ready,” he said. “I learned so much from last year. I learned how to work out. I learned how to be ready every day. I learned how to take care of myself. It’s so different (from starting). You have to be ready every day.”
Perez came into spring training with a motivation that some other pitchers didn’t have. He’s on a shortened timetable because of the WBC. His early bullpen sessions were filled with almost game-like intensity.
Perez believes the increased pressure of pitching in the WBC will only help him better prepare for the big league season. Coming into a game — perhaps against the U.S. on Friday night and having to pitch to someone like Joe Mauer with runners on in a packed stadium — will certainly be more beneficial then throwing to a Double-A player in Maryvale, Ariz.
“It’s going to be like a real game,” he said. “You need these games for the season.”
Mexico has an underrated team with Adrian Gonzalez as its best hitter, Yovani Gallardo as its No. 1 starter, and Perez and Sergio Romo in the bullpen. And it’s very possible it could advance out of the pool that features the U.S., Canada and Italy.
“I want to help us get as deep as we can,” he said. “Maybe we can win the championship.”
Regardless of the outcome, Perez is still pitching in the big leagues and getting to represent Mexico with the best players in the world. In the end, that’s a win.Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish