CLEVELAND -- As the crowd at Rogers Centre unleashed a collective groan, Indians setup man Bryan Shaw walked off the mound. The pitcher pointed emphatically to catcher Roberto Perez and ran over to slap him on the backside in celebration of a critical strikeout of Kevin Pillar.
It was Perez, after all, who called for that 1-2 slider, which dove under Pillar's bat for a punchout, bringing an end to the fifth inning in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. Cleveland hung on for a 3-0 victory, securing a spot in the World Series for the first time since 1997. Relief ace Andrew Miller won the ALCS MVP Award, but Perez was the unsung hero.
"Andrew deserved the MVP, obviously," pitcher Trevor Bauer said. "But Berto was right there with him, in my opinion. He caught every inning. He called the game. He didn't stray from the game plan. He adjusted in-game very well."
During a three-game sweep of the Red Sox in the AL Division Series, Indians pitchers held baseball's most prolific offense to seven runs in three games. The Blue Jays, who hit 221 home runs in the regular season, scored just eight runs in their five games against the Tribe. With Perez behind the plate, Cleveland has tied a club record with three shutouts in a single postseason.
The Indians dealt with a freak injury to Bauer, whose lacerated right pinkie finger led to an unexpected bullpen day in Game 3 of the ALCS. The Tribe leaned heavily on control artist Josh Tomlin, who lacks an overpowering arsenal. In the ALCS clincher on Wednesday, rookie Ryan Merritt -- with just 11 Major League innings to his name, and a fastball that sits around 86 mph -- pitched the game of his career.
Through it all, Perez has consistently served as a stabilizing force.
"'Berto is a great catcher," Merritt said. "He's so smart back there. He's going to throw guys out at second. Every single pitch, he's trying to make it look as good as he can -- every single pitch. He's a great catcher and it's awesome just being able to throw to him every game. Every time he came into the dugout, he had something positive to say to me to keep me going."
During the regular season, the 27-year-old Perez hit only .183 in 61 games, but there were factors working against him. A fractured right thumb sent Perez to the disabled list at the end of April. Then when starting catcher Yan Gomes was lost to injury in July, Perez's rehab assignment was cut short. Without a proper number of at-bats under his belt to get reconditioned to playing every day, Perez was thrust back into regular duty.
While Perez's offense suffered after his return, his defense did not slip. Perez threw out 45.8-percent of would-be basestealers and the Indians went 33-20 with him behind the plate. Twice this season, Perez threw out Kansas City base thief Terrance Gore, who has never been caught by another catcher in the regular season.
"I take a lot of pride in what I do," Perez said, "whether it's calling a game, whether it's blocking balls, whether it's throwing people out or if it's framing. But these guys, man, we have a good group of guys in here. A great pitching staff. I trust them, and they trust me."
Perez also ranked fourth in the AL with 8.0 framing runs, according to Baseball Prospectus. For comparison, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina had 9.4 framing runs in 8,962 chances this season, while Perez had 8.0 in 3,160 chances.
That skill has continued into the playoffs.
Bauer said Roberto Perez was team's MVP behind Miller in ALCS. Here's a sampling of called strikes on edges/off plate for Tribe in playoffs. pic.twitter.com/oWIK8u43ht
"You're always convicted to throw a pitch on the black, and sometimes you miss," Bauer said. "When you do miss and it's slightly off, and you can get a strike, that's a huge benefit. It can change an at-bat, which can change a whole inning. A leadoff hitter, 1-0 or 0-1, in the playoffs especially, that's a momentum swing."
During the ALCS, Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista complained that some "circumstances" were working against his club. It appeared as though Bautista was criticizing some of the called strikes. With Perez catching, plenty of calls have gone Cleveland's way, and not just on the October stage.
Backup catcher Chris Gimenez said Perez even has the ability to get some calls on Miller's sweeping slider.
"It's unbelievable," Gimenez said. "And I'll tell you what, trying to make Miller's slider look like a strike is impossible. And he'll even say that. You can't frame that pitch. It's impossible to do that. And he still manages somehow to make it look halfway decent, where I probably would've tried to block it."
Through eight playoff games, Indians pitchers have turned in a 1.77 ERA with 81 strikeouts, 19 walks and a .206 opponents' average in 71 innings against two of the best lineups in the Majors. As Bauer noted, Perez has caught every inning of the October run to date.
"He didn't try to trick a hitter once," pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "It was unbelievable the games he called. He was fantastic."
Tomlin, who has turned in a pair of strong showings in the playoffs, also credited Perez for his game-calling.
"We're kind of being spoiled as pitchers," Tomlin said. "You see a swing and you go, 'OK, my next pitch is probably going to be a curveball. I want to throw a curveball here.' You get on the rubber and he puts a curveball down and it's like, 'He's on the same page.' That's huge for a pitcher.
"I don't think there's enough words you use to describe how big he's stepped up for us right now."
When Miller closed out the Game 3 win over the Blue Jays, the big lefty also pointed at Perez as he walked off the mound. That showing of appreciation has been more prominent these days.
"Now that Roberto's playing every day," manager Terry Francona said, "you can see his confidence growing. And I think the pitchers have been terrific with him."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.