CINCINNATI — Huddled in his locker, large headphones firmly over his ears and his eyes locked on the show playing on his iPad screen in front of him earlier this season, Cionel Pérez startled a sleepy Orioles clubhouse into an uproar.
In response to whatever scene he watched unfold, Pérez broke the near-silence with a laugh — not just any laugh; a full-blown cackle that drew eyes from each corner. Rougned Odor and Anthony Santander, who had been quietly conversing in one corner, stopped and began laughing among themselves at the scene Pérez can so frequently make.
That’s the effect Pérez can have on his teammates. Even when he isn’t trying to be, the 26-year-old reliever is a spark plug, be it the eighth inning of a close game or in the quiet pregame hours during a particularly grueling stretch.
The type of energy — and where he exhibits it — are the only things that differ.
“We don’t see the crazy, in-tune aggressiveness he shows on the mound [while in the bullpen],” right-hander Joey Krehbiel said. “When he’s pitching, there ain’t nothing but business. And he shows it. He’s kind of scary, he’s out there yelling — I had no idea.”
But it works for Pérez, who has learned to channel his energy in different ways. There are the belly laughs and games in the clubhouse and bullpen, then the grunts and fist pumps on the mound. It’s led him to a high-leverage role with Baltimore, an indispensable left-hander out of the bullpen one season after he struggled to maintain any role with the Reds.
On his return to Cincinnati — this time with a 1.26 ERA — Pérez asked manager Brandon Hyde to make him available. Pérez told Hyde he “was ready to face Cincinnati again,” then took the mound in the sixth inning Friday night with two runners on base and two outs. And once he left it, arms flexing and mouth agape in a yell after striking out Donovan Solano, there was a feeling of vindication.
“The opportunity presented itself,” Pérez said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones after the 6-2 win, “and sure enough, I was able to go out there and execute and be able to do what I wasn’t able to do last year here in Cincinnati.”
When Pérez looks back at his performances for the Reds before he landed with the Orioles as a waiver claim, he acknowledges he didn’t have the control needed to stay on the mound. He walked 20 batters in 24 innings.
As Pérez studied video this offseason, he noticed how his body moved forward faster than his arm did. The unbalanced delivery led to shaky results, and the shaky results didn’t allow Pérez to be as passionate on the mound as he is with Baltimore.
In the bullpen or the clubhouse, Pérez’s energy takes the form of his laughter and jokes. He wears a billiards glove in the clubhouse when he plays pool, watches movies or television and is glued to the screen when Formula One racing is on. The latter is a new hobby, one he picked up this season for the exhilaration — the energy, after all, is up his alley.
During early innings, if a game is dragging, he challenges his teammates to games. He’ll line up cups, then challenge the other bullpen arms to throw sunflower seeds or gum into them.
“He’s usually the one who wins,” right-hander Félix Bautista said. “It’s interesting, because a lot of times when we start throwing seeds at a cup, he’ll start making a ton and he’ll be like, ‘Hey guys, this is too easy.’ So he’ll take out a bottle, cause it’s much smaller, and he’ll try to make it in a bottle.”
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With those bottles, Pérez proves his pinpoint command in the bullpen. Then he takes the mound in high-pressure situations and displays it again, reducing his walk rate from 18% with the Reds to 9.3% with the Orioles.
Pérez has been this way since he was an “explosive” kid in La Habana, Cuba, running around with his friends all day. He wouldn’t crash until late, full of energy, and now he carries “that over to the mound whenever I pitch.”
The approach has worked, adding flair to a fastball that doesn’t need extra life to it.
“I heard from a coach, baseball has a big on and off switch,” Krehbiel said. “You don’t need to have it on all the time. But when you do, it’s gotta be all on. I feel like that’s what he takes, and he throws so freaking hard that he saves it all until he pitches.”
Sitting in the clubhouse before Friday’s series opener against the Reds, Pérez was once more huddled with his headphones canceling out the country music playing while his eyes remained glued to the iPad propped on his knees. There were no hearty laughs to set the clubhouse in motion — not this time.
He was saving that energy for the end of the sixth inning, for after he hurled the 98 mph fastball past Solano to strand two runners. That’s when it poured out for all to see, including any Reds fans who lost faith in him last season.
“I just want to go out there and keep proving it’s not just a one-year thing,” Pérez said. “I want to keep proving this is going to stick around a while.”