JUPITER — His hair is long enough to brush his shoulders and his cheeks haven’t seen a razor in a few days. IMG Academy baseball program alum Chris Perez has that unkempt look of a closer; of the gunslinger called on to blow his fastball by over-matched hitters and nail down the final outs of a game. It’s as if Perez is channeling Rich Gossage or Al Hrobosky.
“That’s what everybody says. But that’s just a coincidence,” Perez said Monday morning while standing outside the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse behind Roger Dean Stadium.
Actually, Perez has the mid-90s fastball of a closer, and if he can learn to throw his slider from the same arm slot as his fastball, he might very well have the job as the Cardinals closer this season.
“It’s the job I prefer, but I just want to be on the team,” Perez said. “Any role would be fine with me.”
Perez, the 23-year-old Bradenton native who played at Manatee High and IMG Academy School and starred at the University of Miami, served as the Cardinals closer last season, converting seven of his 11 save opportunities.
“He’s got an electric arm. The ball jumps out of his hand,” said Trever Miller, the former Ray reliever who is in his first season with the Cardinals. “He’s got a long future in this game as long as he keeps his head where it needs to be and stays grounded.”
Perez reached the major leagues last season, joining the Cardinals on May 16. It was a Friday night and the Rays were in town for an Interleague series. The game was televised so Perez’s family watched him make his big league debut. He pitched a scoreless seventh inning.
“A long day,” Perez said of his first day in the big leagues. “I was excited. Sitting in the bullpen, watching a big league game. Being on the team is what I dreamed about as a kid. I remember going to McKechnie Field with my dad. That was the best thing in the world. We had season tickets for spring training. He still has them. Even in high school, I would go to every game.”
Perez picked up his first big league victory two days later when he pitched a perfect ninth inning. The Cardinals scored the winning run in the bottom of the inning, making a winner out of Perez.
It all happened so fast for Perez. One day he’s in Memphis with the Cardinals Triple A team, the next day his pitching at Busch Stadium.
“My third appearance we were in L.A. and I was facing Jeff Kent,” Perez said. “When I was in high school, he was in the World Series with the Giants. He was arguably a Hall of Famer and I was facing him. I’ve seen that guy on TV and doing ESPN commercials and here I am facing him. Another thing was walking in (the Cardinals clubhouse) the first time, and there’s Albert (Pujols). Welcome to the majors: Here’s your first baseman. He won the MVP last year and is a great player. To have him as a teammate is pretty much: You’re here. If I blow it, maybe he can hit a home run in the ninth.”
The shaggy look notwithstanding, Perez feels he is made to be a closer. He was used in that role as a junior at Manatee High and at Miami and during his climb through the minor leagues.
“I like being on the mound when the game is close and having it all on my shoulders,” Perez said. “I like that feeling. I like the back against the wall kind of a feeling. It feels even better when you get out of it and your guys win. That’s the best feeling.”
To experience that feeling in St. Louis this summer, Perez needs to add that slider. Right now, he’s working on his delivery so that hitters see the same arm slot whether Perez is throwing a fastball or slider.
Cardinals manager Tony La-Russa called Perez’s work on his slider “promising.”
“I need to get more consistent with my arm slot, Perez said. “Last year I was kind of dropping, and hitters could pick that up. That’s not a good thing. I’m just trying to keep it as the same arm motion and coming out of the same spot as my fastball, so it makes it better.”
Miller, who has been in the big leagues since 1996, said Perez needs that second pitch to survive.
“They aren’t many one-pitch pitchers who last in this gamer too long,” Miller said. “Mariano Rivera is about the only guy I know of who can dominate with one pitch, and he’s a hall of famer, so it’s not fair to compare anyone with him.”
Perez is competing with Jason Mott for the closer role. Mott had nine saves at Memphis and one with the Cardinals.
“(Perez) has to earn that” LaRussa told reporters earlier this spring.
That’s fine with Perez.
“Nothing for granted. You’ve got to earn it,” Perez said. “The worst thing a young guy could do is take something for granted, especially the way Tony likes to run the team. He likes competition, guys working hard and competing. He doesn’t want anybody to feel like they are on the team already It makes it fun.”