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Perez grows into Dodger Blue
10/04/2004 8:36 PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- Adrian Beltre isn't the only player to mature before the Dodgers' eyes.

Odalis Perez, at only 27 years old, thinks he's come a long way this year too, even if it isn't as obvious from the 7-6 record he brings into Tuesday's opener of the National League Divisional Series between his Dodgers and the Cardinals.

   Odalis Perez  /   P
Born: 06/11/77
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 220 lbs
Bats: L / Throws: L

"I'm more mature and I know what's expected of me," said Perez, who led the league with 18 no-decisions despite having the lowest ERA of any Dodgers starter this season at 3.25. "I'm a veteran now. I'm one of the big guys on this team. That's why they give me the ball for this game. I don't know if my teammates have accepted me for that, but I believe in my ability."

A bigger question than ability this season has been his shoulder. He spent three weeks on the disabled list with a tired rotator cuff leading into the All-Star break and was pushed back from a start in early September because of further stiffness.

But just when teammates were raising eyebrows about his toughness, Perez answered with a pair of eight-inning starts against the Giants and Rockies in the waning days of the pennant stretch. He also was willing to pitch on three days' rest for the first time in his career had Sunday's game held significance on the race.

"He's stepped up big time," said manager Jim Tracy. "He's made a statement to me, to his teammates, to everyone. He's pitched to his 2002 form [when he went 15-10]. I was hopeful he would. The stage was set for him to pitch meaningful games, and he answered the bell big time."

Perez is set to become a free agent this offseason, and there are indications that the Dodgers, who paid him $5 million this season, might prefer a cheaper alternative.

Acquired from Atlanta in 2002 in the Gary Sheffield trade, Perez was a little-used rookie spectator in 1998, his only previous postseason appearance. The left-hander picked up a win in two-thirds of an inning in one relief appearance against the Cubs in the Divisional Championship Series. In the League Championship Series, Perez retired just one batter in two appearances, giving up two runs on five hits and two walks.

Just as this time is different, Perez is different. In Tuesday's series opener against the Cardinals, he'll get an opportunity to prove it.

Perez has not had much luck against the potent Cardinals offense. He did not pitch in either series against St. Louis this year, but in four lifetime games against the Redbirds, he has a 9.64 ERA including allowing 11 runs in 8 2/3 innings over two starts last season.

"I believe my shoulder is healthy, and in the playoffs, you don't think about that anyway. You give everything you have," said Perez. "I don't care if St. Louis has the best lineup -- no, no, no. If you think that way, you lose. We're in the playoffs for a reason. I [am starting] the first game for a reason. I'm going to be tough."

Toughness has not generally been part of the southpaw's reputation. Teammates were annoyed last season when he skipped a September start with a cracked fingernail and left another start early with a blister.

Perez was already on probation for a bigger infraction, having called out his offense and management for placing an undue burden on the pitching staff.

There's usually one player in every clubhouse either willing or unwise enough to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. In the Dodgers' clubhouse, Perez was that player, with the emphasis on the past tense.

The last two seasons for Perez have been remarkably similar in that his team has provided little offense when he's pitching. This year, however, he's taken the high road when baited about the meager support, in contrast to last season, when he spoke his mind and spent nearly as much time in the doghouse as the clubhouse.

"I learned my lesson. I made a mistake, but everything's in the past," said Perez.

Perez said he's a little older and a lot wiser than he was last year. Of course, everything Perez in the past said was true. However, doing it publicly sparked a firestorm. Catcher Paul Lo Duca lashed back, and management reprimanded Perez. Once an outgoing clubhouse presence, Perez withdrew socially for the remainder of the year.

But that was last year. He said it doesn't matter what he's said or what the Cardinals have done.

"What happened in the past, happened in the past," he said. "This is a new game."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.