Perez jumps in, rewards Mets' leap of faith
ST. LOUIS -- The quiet young man with deep, dark eyes has a spark inside. He's not a flashy player, and both on and off the mound he lacks a distinguishable look. Except, that is, his left arm, his high socks and his jump.
The jump is what makes Oliver Perez baseball's leaping leprechaun. Each time he leaves the mound after an inning, Perez does a small shimmy over the white line. Perez made that jump six times Sunday night in the biggest game of his life, pitching the Mets to a 12-5 win over the Cardinals and a 2-2 tie in the National League Championship Series.
Most predicted the Cardinals would be laughing after facing a starting pitcher with the worst regular-season ERA in postseason history. Perez was 3-13 with a 6.55 ERA for Pittsburgh and New York this season. And he was being asked to face a hot St. Louis team and keep the Mets in the postseason race.
"We didn't know what we were getting [Sunday night]. I think that's fair to say," Mets general manager Omar Minaya said. "He comes in there and keeps us in the game."
Since his debut as a 20-year-old for the Padres in 2002, Perez's metamorphosis has been swift. In just a few years, he went from a near-untouchable prospect -- one, Minaya said, whose value at the time would've required either David Wright or Jose Reyes in a trade -- to a psychologically beaten 25-year-old who couldn't hack it with the Pirates, one of baseball's worst teams.
"There was a lot of pressure and anxiety for him [Sunday], and I know he was aware of it all," fellow left-hander Tom Glavine said. "I was happy and proud for him."
Perez took that burden into Game 4 and he delivered, allowing five runs in 5 2/3 innings, and more importantly, walking only one. Perez has struggled with his command, but nobody has doubted his stuff, which has the potential to make him one of the league's best pitchers. Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson said having Perez repeat his motion, arm angle and delivery was key in getting him back on the path to being the pitcher he once was.
A talent evaluator who watched Perez on Sunday night said the Mexico native's ability to throw strikes is what saved the Mets.
"Perez has always had good stuff, but very inconsistent control and command," the NL talent evaluator wrote in an e-mail. "Even [Sunday night], he has what I call 'area-control.' He never throws in or out on purpose, just throws to a big area."
Peterson inherited Perez at the July trade deadline when Minaya acquired him from Pittsburgh along with Roberto Hernandez for outfielder Xavier Nady. What Peterson got was a demoralized and lost player.
"He was a wreck. He was de-motivated, a loss of confidence," Peterson said. "It was more or less building him back up."
And Peterson rebuilt him slowly. The last game Perez pitched was Oct. 1, more than two weeks ago. For most pitchers, it can be difficult to find a rhythm. Even though Perez tried to simulate game action during throwing sessions on the side, it was hard to envision what Game 4 would feel like, when your team could be down 3-1 if you don't perform.
"It was totally impressive, for him to do [this] against all odds, from all the people telling him no," Peterson said. "He believes in himself now, and I think it clearly shows on the mound."
"I'm so happy for this game," Perez added. "Everybody knows my struggles this season, and we won [Sunday night]. I'm happy."
So the leap continues, one Perez said he's been repeating since he was in Little League in Culiacan, Mexico. The field staff used to tell the children not to touch the white baselines. So Perez started jumping over the line, crossing his legs in a sidestep motion, while adding a little hop.
"I don't do it to offend anyone," Perez said. "I just do it because it's my thing. It's what I do."
The unique jump has drawn many raised eyebrows, and some came from inside the Mets' clubhouse when he first arrived this summer. In baseball, an unorthodox style or flashy gesture can be a sign of disrespect. But the players discussed it, Glavine said, and agreed it was OK since Perez always does the jump, whether the inning was good or bad.
"Turk Wendell used to do it, I guess, but Oliver's seems to be a little more pronounced," Glavine said. "As long as he's consistent, it's hard to argue."
With Perez's performance Sunday night, no one will argue if he gets another chance to pitch -- and have a few more hops in his step.
Amy K. Nelson is a writer/reporter for ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.