Perez comfortable with role year after comeback
Former starter commits to relief work with Mariners as left-handed specialist
PEORIA, Ariz. -- A year ago, Oliver Perez was largely a mystery this early in Mariners camp. Coming off a miserable experience with the Mets, he spent the previous season in Double-A ball with the Nationals before he began experimenting as a reliever in the Mexican Winter League.
But now the Mariners know exactly what they have in the 31-year-old lefty, who turned into one of baseball's best comeback stories in 2012, when he resurrected his career as a bullpen specialist after being promoted to Seattle midway through the season.
And now Perez is walking with a bounce in his step and feeling good about his role with a Seattle club that quickly re-signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million contract when he became a free agent at the conclusion of last season.
"I'm ready to roll," said Perez, who pitched 1 1/3 innings of hitless relief in the Mariners' Cactus League opener Friday against the Padres. "My goal was to come in ready to go. Normally, as a starter, you've got time to get ready in Spring Training, but as a reliever, that's difficult. I felt good last year and was ready in spring, and I wanted to do that again."
Perez will make his second appearance Tuesday, when he is scheduled to pitch the third inning against the Brewers in Phoenix. He's looking to make the most of these initial outings as he'll report to Team Mexico workouts in Glendale, Ariz., on March 4 to begin preparation for the World Baseball Classic.
Perez is one of three Mariners who will compete in the Classic, along with Alex Liddi for Italy and Michael Saunders for Canada. That means he'll miss at least a week of camp, and potentially more if Mexico finishes in the top two of a four-team pool in Phoenix that includes Team USA, Canada and Italy, and advances to second-round play in Miami.
With his standing with the Mariners more secure this season, Perez is comfortable competing in the Classic for his native country.
"If you're from Mexico, you want to wear the Mexican jersey," said Perez, who also competed in tournament in 2006 and '09. "It's very special for me because I know all the people in Mexico, and even those here in the States will be able to see a Mexican team represented in baseball.
"Normally soccer is No. 1. We know there's a lot of talent there and this is a chance to show people what kind of players we have for the future."
But Perez's future is now with the Mariners. After he was released by the Mets with $12 million still owed on his contract in 2011, he gradually regained his health, his confidence and his fastball velocity, then grabbed hold of his new relief role when given the opportunity.
In 33 outings last year, Perez posted a 2.12 ERA, ninth-lowest by an American League reliever with a minimum of 30 appearances. He didn't allow a run in 20 consecutive appearances from July 13 to Sept. 14, tied for the fourth-longest streak in Mariners' history.
So when he had a chance at free agency, he wasted no time deciding to return to Seattle.
"This team gave me an opportunity first of all to get an invitation to Spring Training last year," Perez said. "I just told my agent, if they have something for me, I would like to stay there because that was the only team that gave me a chance to wear a uniform."
Now Perez appears to be pitching well again after playing winter ball once more in Mexico and arriving in camp tuned early for the World Baseball Classic.
"He came out of winter ball throwing really well down there," said pitching coach Carl Willis. "He was ready to step right in and face hitters."
Now that he's re-established himself as a Major Leaguer, Perez vows to not change what got him back to this level.
"My mentality is always to play hard every day," he said. "You have to stay consistent and not take anything for granted, because when you do that, you start going down. I want to stay at the same level for a season. That's what I learned last year."
The Mariners will not ask Perez to stretch himself out again as a starter. Though he was a 15-game winner for the Mets in 2007 and had some strong seasons for the Pirates early in his career, the Mariners feel Perez found his niche as a lefty specialist along with Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge in their bullpen.
Perez understands that and says he feels like a reliever now, even after nine years in the Majors as a starter. But he also says if there ever was an emergency situation, hey, just give him the ball.
"If they need a starter or if they need one out or if they need a closer, I'm ready to go," he said. "For me, it's everything for the team. If they need someone to hit or bunt or pinch-run or do anything, I'd do it. I just want to play."