Chris Perez Has a Plan

GLENDALE, Ariz. - Chris Perez is a passionate guy. You can tell by the emotion in his voice, by the animated way he carries himself and by the way he explains the positives and negatives of keeping a beard.

"I started growing it last year in spring training and got off to a good start, so I kept it," said the Indians' closer. "Now, it's kind of my image. My wife doesn't mind it, if I keep it trimmed. But it's a little out of control right now.

"I'll never cut my (long) hair, but at the end of last year I kind of got tired of the beard. It really gets in the way when I eat or drink something. But the hair - it stays unless I get traded to the Yankees."

Shoulder-length hair and a scruffy beard. They are part of Perez's persona. He might look like he's about to spin out of control, but he never does. Quite the opposite. Perez has a plan, a method developed over the years, sometimes by trial and error. Like his beard.

"When I was with St. Louis, I had a goatee and was going to trim it and accidentally shredded half of it," he said. "I really screwed it up. That's originally how I got facial hair. I was 20 or 21 in an older organization and didn't want to look like a young guy."

Perez still is a young guy. At 25, he is one of the younger closers in the big leagues. He became the Tribe's full-time closer after Kerry Wood was traded midway through last season. Perez went on to save 23 games in 27 opportunities, compiling a 1.71 earned-run average.

"It's just pitching," Perez said of saving games. "That's what I do. Pitching is pitching, but obviously I realize that if you give it up in the ninth, the game is over."

Over the past 30 years, general managers, managers and the media have overhyped the job of closer into being almost too stressful and fraught with pressure for normal mortals. All of this has become a self-fulfilling prophesy to squadrons of otherwise competent pitchers, who when asked to keep a lead in the last inning were unable to retire three batters.

Successful closers know the task can be demanding, but no more so than trying to hold a lead in the seventh with runners on second and third and one out.

"For me personally, I think that's harder," Perez said. "When I come in for the eighth or ninth and the game is close, I think the pressure is on the hitters. If it's the seventh, they still have two or three innings left, and there's not so much pressure on them."

Failing to hold the lead in the ninth can be demoralizing, both for the closer and his team. That's why a pitcher who blows a save must have a short memory.

"Everyone is different," Perez said. "If a team just beats me, it rolls off my back pretty quick. If I walk guys or make bad decisions, then it takes a little longer."

But the ramifications of failing can be more complex than that for a closer.

"When I was with the Cardinals, I was shagging in the outfield when (manager Tony) La Russa came out to talk to me," Perez said. "He told me that Dennis Eckersley didn't let blown saves go that easy. Those were what drove him, because he never wanted to feel that way again.

"So as much as you want to turn the page, you also want to come into the clubhouse and be able to look at the starter who threw five or six good innings and look at the guy who got three hits and the guy who turned a double play. Those are the things that keep you going."

Like most closers, Perez has developed a routine on game day.

"I'm not one of those guys who stays in the clubhouse for five or six innings," he said. "I'm out there right away. I have to get my scouting report with my own eyes. I talk with the other guys all the way to the seventh.

"Then I start getting focused. I try to visualize who I might face. I visualize having guys on base and making pitches. I'm a guy who believes you can trick your mind into doing things."

Perez has known nothing but closing since he was drafted by the Cardinals as the 42nd overall pick in 2006. And that's the way he likes it.

"I'd rather be a closer than any other job on the staff," he said. "Starting might be fun, but I don't like sitting around for four days. If you have a bad start, you think about it for four days. I think all of last year, there were only two days that I knew I wasn't going to pitch."

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