Peralta making it hard to ignore him
Oft-overlooked reliever one of the American League's best
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It's odd that right-hander Joel Peralta is one of the Royals' most overlooked players. Odd because he pitched in 62 games last season and threw 87 2/3 innings, second-most among relievers in the American League.
Yet Peralta's contributions were often ignored, the curse of being a bullpen pitcher who usually works in the middle of games and is an afterthought when the final score is posted.
"The role that I have is not that important for the newspapers, for the media, but I still feel good about myself and the role I have here. I like it," Peralta said.
Naturally, though, when a person's work is largely disregarded, it can give him pause.
"Last year I was kind of concerned," he said. "If I do good, nobody cares. Every time I give up a run or something, my locker was packed with media guys. That's all right, though. You guys do your job, I do mine."
There was one day, though, when the media couldn't ignore the good stuff. Last May 20 at Colorado, Peralta pitched the Royals out of a jam in the 11th inning. With the game tied at 5, the Royals went ahead, 7-5, in the 12th, and Peralta, who'd never had a Major League at-bat, was in the on-deck circle with two out.
He had no inkling that he would actually bat until he noticed that the Rockies were intentionally walking David DeJesus. Ramon Ramirez, a pitcher Peralta knew well from the Dominican Republic, was on the mound.
Peralta found his way to the batter's box and merely watched as two fastballs and a changeup went by.
"On the 2-and-1 count, I said to myself, 'You've got to swing at this pitch, no matter where it's coming. You've got to swing.' He'd thrown three pitches already and I had no chance to react," he said.
Years before, when Peralta was an infielder-outfielder in the Oakland organization, the A's released him because he couldn't hit. On this day in Colorado, though, he belted a drive to deep left field.
"I don't remember if I closed my eyes or not. I just hit it," he said.
Mark Grudzielanek and DeJesus both scored. So did Peralta when Mark Teahen followed with a single for a 10-5 lead. By then, after pitching a tough inning, whacking a double and running around the bases, Peralta was tired. And there was the 12th inning to pitch. But after surrendering a leadoff single, he put the Rockies down on a double play and a strikeout.
"That was a really, really good day," he said.
That marked Peralta's one victory last season and a turnaround for his pitching fortunes. His ERA, 5.19 entering that game, wound up at 3.80, and he was an important factor in a bullpen that jumped from last to sixth-best in the AL.
"Not everyone can do what he does, so he's very valuable," said pitching coach Bob McClure. "A guy who can get lefties and righties out. Who can pitch as often as he pitches. Who can pitch multiple innings. Not everyone can do that.
"I'll say it -- he's one of my favorites. His attitude, his work habits, his professionalism, everything is a plus. It's off the chart."
Peralta, pitching this winter for Gigantes in the Dominican Republic, scaled back his workload to just 13 1/3 innings. He used that time to hone his cut fastball against left-handed hitters, something he'll use this season.
This spring he's living in a house with fellow Dominican pitchers Roberto Giron and Leo Nunez. He says that Giron is a handy guy to have around.
"We call him MacGyver -- he can do everything," Peralta said, referring to TV's resourceful secret agent. "He can give a massage, haircuts, he cooks real good -- anything. He's a guy that can do whatever."
Peralta and Nunez, who's about seven years younger, both grew up in the town of Bonao.
"We lived on the same street in the Dominican," Peralta said. "When I went professional back in '97, he'd go to the field and watch us play. I've known him since he was asking for baseballs in the stadium. When we were playing games, they'd pay him 20 pesos to get the foul balls hit out of the stadium."
Nunez has come a long way. Last July 29 he started against the Texas Rangers and pitched six shutout innings. Peralta relieved him and went three innings for a 10-0 win.
"That was a shut-out game from Bonao," Peralta said.
After spring workouts, Peralta heads for the house to watch TV and rest. He doesn't tune in to the Spanish channels.
"I like to watch American stuff. 'The Cosby Show,' I love it. I love that show, which is weird, but I always watch it," he said.
Movies are a staple; one favorite is "The Da Vinci Code."
Peralta doesn't join the players rushing to the golf course on these Arizona afternoons. He tried golf once -- he took one swing and the ball went in a very wrong direction. He never tried it again.
He saves his energy for the baseball field.
"He's max-effort and he looks like a go-getter," said new manager Trey Hillman. "From what I've heard, he's kind of a fun guy to be around. Real lively, which you always need."
Especially if you need some crucial outs in the 12th inning. Or maybe even a base hit.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.