Indians hope Chris Perez is a keeper as a closer

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Have the Indians found their long-term closer in Chris Perez?

This is not to question Perez's ability -- his 95 mph fastball and slicing slider are exactly what a team wants in the guy pitching the ninth inning. Perez had some games last season where he didn't just close the door on the other team, he slammed it shut with sizzling stuff.

Consider that five different pitchers have led the Tribe in saves in each of the last five seasons. That may also be why the bullpen has often been a nightmare for fans in Wahoo red, white and blue.

Even when Bob Wickman saved games in the mid-2000s -- and he converted 88 percent -- those final three outs came with fans gobbling down packs of Tums while closing their eyes and mumbling incoherently. Wickman's last year with the Tribe was 2006 when he had 15 saves before being traded midseason.

In 2007, Joe Borowski saved 45 games with a 5.07 ERA, doing it like a man walking a tightrope while juggling meat cleavers. He had fans longing for Wickman, who seemed to walk only two guys before somehow saving the game.

Borowski's arm went bad in 2008, and that led to a horrible bullpen where the saves leader was Jensen Lewis with 13.

In 2009, the Indians signed Kerry Wood to a two-year, $20 million deal.

It seemed Wood never understood that Progressive Field was not Wrigley Field, as he sort of moped about not being in Chicago while dealing with some minor physical problems. He had 20 saves.

In 2010, Wood was traded in July, Perez took over and saved 23 of 27 save opportunities.

So there you are: Wickman, Borowski, Lewis, Wood and Perez.

Five seasons, five closers.

Perez dominated
Now, for some good news. Perez is 25. He won't be a free agent until 2015. Of all the recent Tribe closers, none had a better year than Perez in 2010.

His 1.71 ERA was the second best of any American League reliever with at least 60 innings. He was 10-of-11 in one-run saves, the most demanding challenge for a closer. He also had five saves where he pitched more than one inning. He was a rarity in this age of specialization where a closer is typically asked to record just three outs.

The more Perez pitched, the better the result. He finished the season converting 18-of-19 saves.

"I always knew I could do this," Perez said. "I've been a closer most of my life."

He is 6-4, 230 pounds with long, wild black hair and fiery eyes. He doesn't just stare down a hitter, he glares at him as if the batter wants to kill his best friend.

"I'm a little wired out there," Perez said. "Sometimes, I want to throw 100. That's not good, because I'll start walking guys. I can get them out at 95."

Perez said in his early days at the University of Miami (Fla.), he started a few games.

"But I'm so keyed up, by the fifth inning, I was exhausted," he said.

Perez can light up the radar gun at 98 mph in nearly every outing. His average fastball is about 95. His slider is more of a 90-mph sizzler.

He became the big, intimidating power reliever the Tribe hoped to have when throwing cash at Wood before the 2009 season. Perez arrived quietly that same summer. The Indians were on their way to 96 losses. Veterans such as Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez were being traded. They also sent Mark DeRosa to St. Louis for Jess Todd and Perez.

In 70 games with the Cardinals (2008-09), Perez had a 4-4 record with a 3.72 ERA and was 7-of-11 in save situations. The Cardinals believed Perez had the physical ability to close, but wondered if he had the temperament to handle the pressure of the job.

So, that deal looks more like a steal for the Tribe, a good move to counter some of the other trades where Tribe fans are still awaiting the payoff for having their stars traded for prospects.

Dealing with failure
Early last season, Perez blew a save and hinted that the catcher should have blocked one of his pitches in the dirt that set up the winning run. It's not what a closer does. He is like a quarterback. No matter what goes wrong -- it's your fault. Just stand up and take the blame.

Perez figured that out, making sure his emotions were under control when speaking to the media on those few occasions when he didn't save a game.

"The job gives you more chances to fail," he said. "You can lose a game in the seventh inning, but when you blow a lead in the ninth -- everyone knows you did it. You feel you let the team down."

Perez has had a tremendous spring (1.23 ERA) and manager Manny Acta has praised his conditioning and determination.

"I think he's in better physical shape than last year," Acta said. "Just as important, his confidence has grown. He has done the [closer's] job. Now, I want him to take another step forward and be one of the leaders in the bullpen in terms of helping the other guys out there."

"I want to do that," Perez said. "I'll do what they ask. Like there were times when they had me pitch more than one inning. I can do that. In some ways, closers have gone soft. They don't always have to just pitch the ninth."

It was Tony La Russa -- when he managed Oakland -- who decided the best way to handle a closer was to have him open the ninth inning with only one job in mind -- get the last three outs and preserve the lead. Bring him in with no runners on base, and ask him to pitch only one inning.
It was supposed to increase the odds of success for a reliever, and it turned Dennis Eckersley into a superstar. Soon, other managers followed that formula.

The Indians have a rule that no one appears in more than three games in three days. They want to limit the multi-inning work for Perez, but Acta said he still will ask Perez to do it on occasion.

"I'm open to it," said Perez. "Really, I just want to pitch. It's so much fun."

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