In Defeat, Pérez Finds Solace in Revived Career

Nats Starter Has Made the Most of Minor League Deal: Padres 6, Nationals 2

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008; Page E05

It was a strange day for satisfaction, but Odalis Pérez felt it nonetheless. He had pitched six innings, striking out 11, which tied a career high. The start, the second-to-last of his season, gave Pérez a valedictory-like sense of pride: This season, he met expectations, even exceeded them. He revived his career. He lasted deep into September, still pitching his best. For these reasons, he felt satisfied, and yes, happy, without the need to apologize.

Pérez 's situation -- he's 31 years old, at the tail end of a one-year contract -- affords him an understandable separation between self and team. He can look at the embarrassment of this weekend's series with San Diego, which ended yesterday with a 6-2 loss at Nationals Park, with a mercenary's detachment. Would Pérez prefer a winning team? Certainly. The Nationals' latest loss gave them five in a row and 98 overall. The team's profound deficiencies -- the lineup scored just four runs in the final 24 innings of this series -- stuck Pérez (7-11) with his latest loss.

But after this game, Pérez spoke of redemption, not disappointment. Some players, when talking about their own performances, observe the most orthodox restrictions: Personal achievement means nothing, unless the team can win. Pérez, though, was brought here in February on a minor league contract that paid him $850,000. He was a hired arm, a stopgap, and Washington gambled that Pérez could channel personal motivation -- that is, the desire to resurrect his career -- into a greater good.

Especially after yesterday's start, Pérez can claim a job well done. He has a 4.27 ERA, just a tick below the National League average, but well below what some feared when Pérez made the rotation out of spring training. In 22 of 29 starts, he has allowed three earned runs or less.

"He's given us a lot of quality starts, and the innings we were hoping he would give us out of spring training," Manager Manny Acta said. "Naturally, he has probably exceeded a lot of people's expectations from the outside world about the quality innings he was going to give us. We think that, easily, he could have won double-digits -- almost 15 games -- with other things around him."

On this afternoon, Pérez let up two runs in the first (on three consecutive hits, two doubles) and one in the sixth (an Adrian Gonzalez homer), but filled the time in between with mastery. He retired 10 in a row between the second and fifth. At one point, he chalked up five consecutive strikeouts. Twice, he struck out the side. All four of his pitches were working. His location was pinpoint. Pérez felt empowered, a man enjoying his very best.

When it ended -- when San Diego scored three security runs against the Washington bullpen; when Washington could score just twice, on a Ryan Zimmerman homer (sixth inning) and a Zimmerman RBI single (eighth) -- Pérez acknowledged the loss, and called it unfortunate.

But, he added this: "Records, winning and losing -- for me it's not important. Because to me [what's important] is to be healthy and be able to keep playing baseball and regroup my career.

"For me," Pérez said, "I feel very, very happy. I've pitched this year for the Nationals, and hopefully next year, I don't know where I'm going, I don't know if I'm gonna stay, but if I have the opportunity to come back here to Washington I'd be happy to. Because for me, the way I've been treated here is great. For my part, it has been great."

Pérez chose Washington, not because he wanted a winner but because he wanted a chance. Three other teams -- Philadelphia, Boston and the New York Mets -- expressed interest in the left-hander this offseason, Pérez said yesterday. Agreeing to the contract terms forced Pérez to swallow his ego -- "It was so hard for me to sign a minor league deal, just pride-wise," Pérez said, "because I was coming from a three-year deal which, you know, I earned a lot of money" -- but he accepted the premise. Pitch well for a year, and he could buy himself the opportunity to pitch in 2009 and beyond.

After this season, Pérez will remain in Washington until December. His wife is pregnant, and she will give birth here. When selecting where to play next season, Pérez said, he'll mostly listen to his agent. He'll return to the Dominican Republic, play winter ball, and cherish the belief that his performance in 2008 will reap dividends.

But after this game, before leaving the stadium, Pérez also had the short-term plans on his mind.

"I'll still go out right now, go home, maybe sit down and maybe watch ESPN and watch the strikeouts, whatever, and I will be happy," Pérez said. "Because on my part, I did my job."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company