CLEVELAND – (Wire Service Report – Special to Digital Sports Desk) – Roberto Perez wasn’t part of the Cleveland Indians’ blueprint for success at the beginning of the season. He also wasn’t part of the plan leading up to the Aug. 1 trading deadline. But on Tuesday night there he was — the defense-first, last-option catcher — hitting a pair of home runs and driving in four as the Indians downed the Chicago Cubs 6-0 in Game 1 of the World Series at Progressive Field.
This is part of what makes Major League Baseball’s postseason so entertaining. It isn’t just must-see because of the high-quality games. It also inevitably gives a chance for some unsung player to shine. There may be more in this World Series, but for at least a day Perez’s story captivates us.
This game was as close to a must-win for the Tribe as they come. Ace Corey Kluber was starting — he is truly the only starting pitcher the Indians can bank on after September injuries took Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar out of their equation. He is so important that manager Terry Francona laid out a plot to use him in Games 1, 4 and 7.
Kluber delivered with six shutout innings before Andrew Miller and Cody Allen got the last nine outs. It’s a recipe — at least six innings from Kluber and then a handoff to Cleveland’s spectacular bullpen — that has been working all through the playoffs.
But the one ingredient that makes that magic is a lead. Cleveland grabbed it with a two-run first inning that included an RBI hit-by-pitch on Brandon Guyer. Perez took the heat off with a solo homer off Chicago ace Jon Lester in the fourth inning and three-run dagger in the eighth off Hector Rondon.
Perez joins Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Gary Carter and Gene Tenace as the only catchers with multi-homer games in the World Series.
Lester got a fly-out from Perez in the second inning, throwing him six fastballs. Perez got fastballs again in the fourth and drilled the second one. The pitch pattern doesn’t exactly speak to respect for the No. 9 hitter in the Cleveland lineup.
“It was controlling my emotions. The first at-bat, my first World Series, I was excited. The next time I was more able to by myself,” Perez said. “I’m playing with a lot of confidence.”
He can do that now because he is the primary catcher. At the start of the season, that was going to be Yan Gomes, with Perez as the backup. Perez suffered a broken thumb on the last day of April and was near the end of his rehab when Gomes suffered a separated shoulder on July 18. Perez was rushed back to step in. But even then he wasn’t the first choice. Cleveland worked out a deal with Milwaukee for big-hitting catcher Jonathan Lucroy, a two-time All-Star. Then the story took a twist. Cleveland was on the no-trade list in Lucroy’s contract; he would have to waive it for the deal to go through, but Cleveland refused to void the 2017 year of his contract, so he didn’t.
So Perez ascended. He didn’t deliver much with the bat, hitting .184 with three home runs and 17 RBIs in 61 regular-season games. But it didn’t matter much because the Tribe hits and he excelled behind the plate. He is great at calling a game, framing pitches and throwing to bases.
“We have a bullpen that’s getting a lot of notoriety right now,” Miller said after the Tribe won the pennant last week in Toronto.
“The constant behind all that is Roberto Perez. … Roberto is below the radar, but he shouldn’t be. He’s incredible with his ability to receive the ball and call pitches, and he’s a better hitter than he gets credit for. What a special guy back there.”
The Indians got the unexpected in Game 1 of the AL Division Series against Boston when he homered in a three-run third of a 5-4 win. But now they get this.
His homer off Lester just cleared the left-field wall. His homer off Rondon went about 15 rows up, to left-center field. You had to wonder how Lucroy, who ended up being dealt to Texas, felt if he was watching.
“What he did at the plate tonight, my goodness, it was exciting to watch,” Francona said. “It gave us a cushion early and late it spread it out. In the seventh inning, that wasn’t looking like (it would be) a 6-0 game. Everybody was happy for him. You could see the way everyone reacted to it.”
And really, why not feel happy for him? He was never envisioned as more than a backup. Had Gomes not gotten injured, had Lucroy gone for the deal, Perez might never have been what he is so far: the guy who has caught every inning as the Indians have won eight of their first nine postseason games and the guy who has equaled his regular-season home run total along the way.
Being the catcher who called those games — and the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Cubs have some of the most formidable offenses in the game — is a serious accomplishment.
“He’s a great story,” pitching coach Mickey Calloway said. “He has a great feel for the game.”
“I just play the game the right way and try to have fun,” Perez said.
He’s having a lot of fun right now.