By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
JUPITER, Fla., March 25 -- His name and face are unlikely to appear in the promotional run-ups for the initial broadcast of ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," because a man with a year-old ERA of 5.57 should have trouble getting a job -- and this offseason, Odalis Pérez did. But the reality of the Washington Nationals' situation is that the pitcher they wanted to start that night, Shawn Hill, ended up on the disabled list before he threw a competitive pitch. Thus, a 30-year-old left-hander who has never before thrown a season opener and has been a member of the organization for all of 35 days will take the ball Sunday night.
"And I'm taking it," Pérez said, "with attitude."
There is no telling whether Pérez's expectations for a bounce-back season will be realized. But in making his last exhibition start Tuesday in a 3-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, he carried with him the defiant swagger that has characterized his month-long stint here. It is the same attitude Pérez had as a 17-year-old, when he signed with the Atlanta Braves, the same attitude he carried with him when he made his major league debut at 21, back when he came up throwing smoke and taking names.
And it is the same attitude that, from time to time, has agitated opponents and teammates alike.
"He'd make faces, and people would take it the wrong way," said Washington bench coach Pat Corrales, a Braves coach when Pérez came up. "That was bull. He's as nice a young man as you'll meet. Faces and stuff, who cares?"
To the Nationals, he is the face of experience, because he has made 191 major league starts. The other four members of Washington's rotation -- Matt Chico, Jason Bergmann, Tim Redding and Hill (when he comes off the disabled list) -- have combined to make 178. The Nationals are hoping Pérez can handle the flashbulbs that will come with opening Nationals Park, and that he somehow can beat Atlanta's Tim Hudson, whose ERA last season (3.33) was more than two runs better than Pérez's.
"It's a smart move," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "He's a veteran guy, and he's taken the ball a lot. He has a lot of experience, and he doesn't really look like he's missed a beat."
Pérez wrapped up his spring Tuesday with a six-inning outing in which he was charged with three earned runs, leaving his spring ERA in three appearances at an unremarkable 4.96. But two of the runs scored after left fielder Rob Mackowiak lost a ball in the sun, providing a gift double. "Odalis pitched a lot better than the numbers show," Manager Manny Acta said.
Pérez felt that way as well. "I'm ready to go," he said. He no longer is the power pitcher Acta saw in the Dominican Republic all those years ago. But he has shown an ability this spring to spot his fastball, a pitch that could set up a very good change-up.
"He came up with a power slider," Corrales said. "And now, he's got a power change-up."
There still are pitfalls, however, and the prime-time Opening Night assignment does not erase Pérez's struggles of the past two seasons, when he had a 5.87 ERA and allowed opponents a .319 batting average in 58 appearances with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Kansas City Royals.
"I think at times he tries to get too tricky, what I saw from him . . . two years ago with the Dodgers," Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "I really thought he tried to miss bats, tried to fool everybody. I talked to him earlier in the [spring], and he's gotten more aggressive and attacked more with his fastball. I like it. I think he could even [do it] more so."
Pérez said if he seemed rattled in the past, it's because he was. In 2006, Grady Little took over as the Dodgers' manager. Though Pérez didn't mention Little by name, he did say "my confidence went down a little bit."
"After I was there for four years, and I get the ball every five days, and they let me pitch my six, seven, eight innings, nine innings," he said. "The last time I was there, it was different because I go three or four innings, and I get in trouble and just right away, [they] get the ball away from me and bring somebody else."
Pérez believes that will change in Washington, though Acta has extreme confidence in his bullpen, and the Nationals' starters worked fewer innings than any rotation in the National League. Acta, though, would love to take pressure off his relievers from the first day of the season, and Pérez believes "Manny has confidence in what I got."
"Now, my confidence since I came over, it's better," Pérez said. "I feel better. I feel more comfortable. And if I can take that to the season, I know I can go a lot of innings."
The 2007 Nationals did not have a pitcher throw more than Chico's 167 innings. Pérez hasn't topped that number since 2004, back in his heyday with the Dodgers.
"It doesn't matter," Corrales said. "He can do it. He's more mature now."
Thus, when he gets the ball Sunday night, Pérez will take it, as he said, with attitude. His presence does not make for a marquee matchup. Frankly, he does not care.
"I want the ball," he said. "I want to be out there Opening Day. I want to be out there because I know what Manny's put in my hands. That's a lot of responsibility."