Nationals' Pérez Talks a Good Game

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

VIERA, Fla., March 15 -- His line from Saturday's game -- 4 1/3 innings pitched, five hits, four runs allowed -- doesn't match how Odalis Pérez believes he pitched. "I was good," he said afterward, quite seriously.

It is much the same assessment Pérez has of his 2007 season, one in which he logged a 5.57 ERA for the Kansas City Royals, a year Pérez feels was just getting ready to turn around before he went down with a knee injury.

In March, a pitcher with a career record of 66-70 and eight trips to the disabled list can sit at his locker and speak confidently, even boldly, about his prospects. The way Pérez figures, he needs the Washington Nationals as much as they need him, and that is badly. In fact, if the Nationals need him to open their new park on March 30, then so be it.

"I've been here a long time, enough to be mentally and physically ready for any occasion, any situation," Pérez said Saturday. "If I have the first game of the season, [I'll be] ready to go. I'm not worried about who we're facing, who I'm facing as a pitcher. No. I'm fine."

That, too, was the assessment of everyone around Pérez on Saturday, when the Nationals lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers, 6-1. Yes, he gave up those four runs, but he felt he was squeezed on a two-out walk to Russell Martin in the fourth, one that was followed by Andre Ethier's wind-aided two-run homer. When Pérez threw the last of his 64 pitches with one out in the fourth, there were two runners on base, and reliever Eude Brito allowed them to score.

"He threw the ball well," Manager Manny Acta said. "I like what I saw."

Indeed, with two spring starts left, Pérez appears to have a hold on one of the five spots in the Nationals' rotation. He began Saturday's outing with three exceptional innings, throwing 31 of his first 38 pitches for strikes. He has, as Nationals special assistant Jose Rijo said, "one of the best change-ups in the game," and when he keeps it down, he can be tough, particularly on left-handed hitters.

"He's on a mission," said Rijo, who has known Pérez since he first came up with Atlanta as a 21-year-old in 1998. "The way he's talking, it's motivating for everyone. Right now, if he keeps the routine he has now when he's not pitching, he'll be able to have a very successful year."

There has been, however, some question about Pérez's routine in the past. His best years came in Los Angeles, where he went 15-10 with a 3.00 ERA in 2002, then posted a 3.25 ERA in 31 starts in 2004. After that year, he was a free agent, and the Nationals -- still owned by Major League Baseball, preparing for their first season in Washington -- pursued him. But he returned to the Dodgers on a three-year, $24 million contract.

From there, though, things changed. He went on the disabled list twice in 2005. By the middle of 2006, he was 11-12 with a 5.36 ERA since signing the deal. He was traded to Kansas City.

"I don't really know what happened," Pérez said. "It's not like I don't work hard, because I work really hard. Sometimes people make you lose your confidence. And sometimes, when you think you're doing the right things to become a better pitcher or a better teammate, sometimes people take it different ways.

"When you are on a team where there are a lot of superstars, a lot of old players, a lot of veteran players, sometimes it's tough. . . . I've been here for the last nine-something years. Some people still believe I'm too young to be a veteran."

Pérez declined to identify who made him feel that way. Back then, Rick Honeycutt served as the Dodgers' pitching coach. On Saturday, through a team spokesman, Honeycutt declined to talk about Pérez.

Whatever the problem, it matters little to the Nationals now. Acta raves about Pérez's conditioning, calling it "the best physical shape he's been in in years." But given that he went from making $8 million per year to signing a non-guaranteed contract that would pay him $850,000 should he make the team, Acta believes there are other changes.

"I think he's a little bit more mellow right now," he said. "I think he's had some stuff happen to him in the past, and I think he's learned from it."

Pérez, too, believes he has learned. He is the rare 30-year-old who can boast of nine years in the majors. When he first entered the Braves' rotation as a 22-year-old, he joined Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, likely Hall of Famers. "You have to be a good student, because I know they are good teachers," Pérez said. "I learned." He admits that since those days, he has transformed from a power pitcher to one who must use the corners, lessons he learned from Glavine and Maddux.

And strangely enough, he could now become the veteran of a major league staff. Right-handers John Patterson and Tim Redding are both 30 as well, but Pérez has appeared in 222 major league games, Patterson and Redding just 204 between them.

The way the rotation works out now, Pérez's regular turn would fall on Opening Night. Though Acta said there is plenty of time to shake things up, Pérez is well aware of that chance -- regardless of what the numbers from Saturday, or last year, or on his contract, might say.

"If they count on me, that is telling me that I'm a big piece for this team," he said. "And if I get it, believe me . . . the results are going to be good."

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