Smooth Operator

Perez handles role changes with ease




ST. LOUIS—When the Cardinals sent their closer of the future back to the minors, they gave him a simple recipe for his return: For every fastball Chris Perez threw, they wanted him to throw a slider.

The Cardinals told Perez that having a reliable breaking ball was a prerequisite to throw in the ninth inning, so he went back to Triple-A Memphis and worked on it. When he refined it enough, he found the ninth was waiting for him in St. Louis.
Perez, 23, got called up on Aug. 6 and quickly found himself in a late-inning role. The Cardinals balked at calling him their closer, but his five saves in five opportunities after the promotion showed he may have had the role without the title.

"First time up, it was the first time, and I was trying to feel my way around on how stuff works," said Perez, the 42nd overall pick in the 2006 draft out of Miami. "Looking over your shoulder, wondering if a bad outing was going to mean I get sent down. What do they want from me? Do they want strikeouts? The second time up, I realized they don't care as long as I get outs. I'm not looking over my shoulder much.

"I know if I do what I can do and what I'm supposed to do, I'll stay up here."

The Cardinals never doubted Perez's fastball, which has hit 97 mph consistently and touched 98 mph in the majors. It was his second pitch that worried them. Perez was able to throw a slider out of the zone routinely for strikeouts in the minors. In his first sip of the majors, Perez found hitters rarely chased that pitch and waited on the fastball. That prompted the one-for-one assignment in Triple-A.

In his absence, inconsistencies and injuries conspired to leave the Cardinals' ninth inning open. Though manager Tony La Russa would not anoint Perez the closer, it didn't stop the Cardinals from using Perez in closer situations. Three of his five saves were more than three-out assignments, and he realizes not one of them came with the promise of the job in 2009.

REDBIRD CHIRPS

• Brett Wallace, the 13th overall pick in June, hit .327/.418/.490 at low Class A Quad Cities before leapfrogging high Class A Palm Beach to Double-A Springfield, where he hit .367/.456/.653 in 49 at-bats.

• Curt Smith, a 39th-round pick in June, left a .378 average behind in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, making him the third Cardinals farmhand to win the league's batting title in the past five seasons.