Indians’ Perez just keeps getting better

Andy Call

With factbox.

Rafael Perez doesn’t consider himself a finished product.

“I’ve been a work in progress,” Perez said.

One can only imagine how good Perez will be when he’s done progressing. Cleveland’s skinny 25-year-old left-hander ranked fifth among all American League relief pitchers with a 1.77 ERA entering tonight’s game against Detroit and has proven himself a consistent stopper in the seventh-inning role preceding setup man Rafael Betancourt and closer Joe Borowski.

“I’m more confident each day,” Perez said through interpreter and bullpen catcher Dennis Malave. “The last few games I’ve been able to do well. I’m also gaining the confidence of the coaches, which gives me more confidence.”

Manager Eric Wedge has demonstrated his confidence in Perez by allowing him to pitch in tight games since being recalled from Triple-A Buffalo on May 28.

“He’s really filled an important role for us and earned a spot in the back end of our bullpen,” Wedge said.

The numbers certainly reflect that.

Perez has struck out 42 in 41 innings, allowing 26 hits and 10 walks. Left-handers are batting .088 with one home run against him, right-handers .231 with three homers.

Sunday’s eighth-inning appearance against the New York Yankees was a stern test, and one he passed. Perez struck out Alex Rodriguez, allowed a single to Hideki Matsui, then retired Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano on weak ground balls.

“His ball moves all over the place,” Wedge said. “He goes right after guys. He pitches with a lot of poise and no fear.”

“The most important thing for me is to be more consistent around the strike zone,” Perez said. “If I can do that, I can throw more two-seamers and sliders.”

Perez pitched well in 18 appearances for the Indians last season, striking out 15 in 12 innings, but needed a little refinement. He returned to his native Dominican Republic over the winter and was 3-0 with a 1.41 ERA in eight games for Cibao.

“In spring training, I worked on the same things I had worked on during winter ball,” Perez said. “Those changes are taking place now.”

“He’s been up here long enough we can read him pretty well,” Wedge said. “He is stronger this year. He can definitely give us two innings if we need.”

Perez’s life has changed since he gave up basketball (”I could take it down the middle pretty good”) for baseball at age 16. He signed with the Indians at 19 and was converted from first base to pitcher during his first year at the team’s Dominican academy.

Perez never graduated from high school and sends much of his salary home to support his family.

“Like everybody’s family here, mine wishes me well,” Perez said. “They’re glad to see I’m healthy and enjoying what I’m doing.”

Perez is certainly enjoying life in the big leagues.

“The best thing so far has been being able to compete at the greatest level in baseball,” Perez said. “The other thing is the kind of team I’ve been able to play on, a team that is winning games and has good chemistry. Guys are playing for each other instead of themselves.”

The Indians were pleasantly surprised to have found a dependable third reliever in Perez, and he was equally pleased to discover he had that level of ability.

“To be honest, this (success) has kind of caught me by surprise,” Perez said.

Reach Repository sports writer Andy Call at (330) 580-8346 or andy.call@cantonrep.com.

Tigers vs. Indians

SITE: Jacobs Field

SCHEDULE: Today, 7:05 p.m.; Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.

TV: SportsTime Ohio

RADIO: WHBC-AM 1480, WQKT-FM 104.5, WAKR-AM 1590, WTAM-AM 1100, WJER-AM 1450.

PROBABLE PITCHERS: Today, LHP C.C. Sabathia (14-6, 3.52) vs. RHP Jeremy Bonderman (10-5, 4.76); Wednesday, RHP Fausto Carmona (13-7, 3.26) vs. RHP Jair Jurrjens (0-0, 0.00).

PROMOTIONS: Tonight, dollar hot dogs and Giant Eagle Advantage Card ticket discounts; Wednesday, indians.com ticket discounts.

NOTABLE: Detroit’s starter for Wednesday is officially listed as “TBA,” but the Tigers may bring up Jurrjens from Double-A Erie, where he is 7-5 with a 3.20 ERA. ... The Indians are 6-4 against the Tigers, 26-17 against the Central Division. Detroit is 23-23 against the Central. ... The Tigers have been scuffling recently, 8-16 from July 19 through Sunday. The Indians haven’t been much better, 7-13 since July 22. ... Sabathia will go for his third victory over the Tigers this season tonight, but the Tigers are 23-12 against left-handed starters. ... Detroit has won four of the last five games in the season series. ... Detroit LHP Andrew Miller and Kenny Rogers are on the DL, as is RHP Joel Zumaya, who began a rehab assignment Monday with Triple-A Toledo.

UP NEXT: Cleveland at Tampa Bay, Friday through Sunday.