Cleveland Indians' Chris Perez: A closer in waiting

Goodyear, Ariz. -- Chris Perez has the look of a major league closer. This is not to be confused with his Indians' debut last June when he had the look of a "Major League" closer.

That night did seem scripted for comic relief -- if, of course, you weren't Chris Perez, any of his teammates, any of the customers at Progressive Field, or, really, anyone other than the White Sox.

It was the first glimpse of what the Indians received from St. Louis in return for Mark DeRosa. One minute, a 6-4, 230-pound reliever with a promising fastball. The next, a mushroom cloud.

"It was the perfect storm of everything a reliever can do that's bad," Perez said Sunday before rain canceled the Indians spring training game with Texas.

Perez hit shortstop Alexei Ramirez, the first batter he faced, in the head. Pinch runner Jayson Nix stole second. Perez also hit Jermaine Dye. Then he walked Jim Thome.

The night turned even more uncomfortable when he failed to cover first base in time on an infield grounder. A double followed. A wild pitch. Then a single.

Perez lasted two-thirds of an inning. He allowed two hits and four runs. He hit two batters. A walk. A wild pitch. A stolen base. The only thing the White Sox didn't make off with in the undressing of Perez was his U. of Miami tattoo.

A week later, while still making his clubhouse introductions, he gave up a grand slam to Paul Konerko. It's a wonder teammates didn't greet him wearing Hazmat suits.

"I didn't know anybody on the team," Perez said. "The only one I could talk to was my agent.

"I said, 'I need to talk to you as a friend.' " He told me I still had half a season left, that they just traded for me. So I wasn't going anywhere. He said, 'You better figure something out or it could get worse.' "

Somehow, he did. The Konerko grand slam was July 7. From July 8 through Sept. 5, he made 20 consecutive appearances without allowing a run. It was a career best for Perez and a season best for the Indians.

There wasn't exactly much competition for high achievement out of the pen in 2009. The Indians' bullpen had the league's third-highest ERA. It tied for most home runs and fewest saves.

The basketball equivalent of that combination would be a team whose motto is, "We may be short but we sure are slow."

Last year the Indians couldn't get to Kerry Wood, who will make $10.5 million this season in the final year of his contract. Wood will almost certainly be dealt if the Indians don't contend. Perez, who closed in the minors and saved seven games for the Cardinals in 2008, is in line to replace Wood sooner or later.

"That's the way he's been groomed," said manager Manny Acta. "This is a guy who has the stuff to do it and the mentality to do it. He had a pretty good last month of the season."

Acta had pitching coach Tim Belcher call down to the bullpen Friday to relay a message to Perez, who was warming up to pitch in the spring training opener.

Acta had info on the first Reds batter Perez would face. He knew the kid was a dead fastball hitter. Belcher called and said to tell Perez the hitter would be sitting on a fastball, so be careful.

Perez got the news in mid-windup, completed his delivery and said, "He ain't seen mine yet."

"That's what you want in a guy like that," said Belcher.

Perez was a catcher at Pendleton (Fla.) high school. His junior year, his team played in a tournament that required something like seven games in three days. They ran out of pitchers. He volunteered.

"I had no idea where the ball was going," he said.

The next year, at a showcase game for scouts, was the first time anyone pointed a radar gun at him. He topped off at 93 mph. After a brief turn at starting at the University of Miami, he went to the bullpen full time.

All that's left in order to feel really at home is settling into the closer role some day. Anybody who could pick himself up from the rubble of last summer has shown at least the hint of the resilience necessary for the nightly walk on the ninth-inning high wire.

"That's the goal, but it's not a need," Perez said. "It's not something I should be given. I know Kerry's contract situation. Hopefully, we'll have him all season because it'll mean we're in contention."

Perez looks the part. Big. Strong. A wild head of hair. Hard-throwing.

He has the requisite sense of adventure, too.

"I like being out there and it's up to me, and nobody is warming up over my shoulder," he said. "I like having guys on base and the other team thinks it's going to win.

"One of the best feelings is slamming the door, game over, and they don't know how. . . . I realize runners on base might not be so good for fans."

Probably not. But after what fans saw of the Indians' pen a year ago, there is room for compromise.

Just not three runners at a time.

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