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Focus key for Tribe's Perez

Focus key for Tribe's Perez

NEW YORK -- His mind was on the mitt.

Forget about the crowd.

Forget about the goosebumps.

Forget about the energy.

Just look to the mitt.

If you want to know how Indians left-hander Rafael Perez was able to set down each of the 12 Yankees batters he faced over four innings of relief work in Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS, well, that's how.

"I was able to concentrate on the mitt of Victor [Martinez]," Perez said through an interpreter. "I knew that I had to do it to be able to get the outs."

Yes, because to get caught up in all the outside factors -- most notably an electric Jacobs Field audience and a potent New York lineup -- would expose Perez to the dangers of making a big game bigger.

Then again, Perez's focus in tense moments has been his specialty in his ridiculous rookie season. None of what he's done in his first foray into the world of October baseball has surprised his manager or his teammates.

"If you asked me three months ago, I would say he's surprised me," Eric Wedge said. "It's important [for young players] to understand it's still baseball. You've just got to go out and play your game and control what you can control, and he's done a good job at that."

Opposing batters have been under Perez's control all year. Called up for good to the Majors on May 29, Perez made 44 appearances out of the 'pen and established himself as perhaps the most dominant left-handed reliever in the American League.

Perez's 1.78 ERA ranked third among AL relievers, and his .219 opponents average against ranked sixth. His first-batter average of .049 was the lowest in the AL.

"He's just been tough as nails for us," Tribe ace C.C. Sabathia said.

The regular-season dominance, which allowed Perez to form a solid setup tandem with right-hander Rafael Betancourt, was certainly nice and all. But projecting how a 25-year-old, in his first extended exposure to the big leagues, will perform in the postseason spotlight is never easy.

What is easy to predict, however, is Perez's ability to shrug off all that surrounds him.

"He never gets too excited," Martinez said. "He just pitches his game."

And against the Yanks, it's been game on.

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When Sabathia had maxed out his pitch count after only five innings of work in Thursday's Game 1, Wedge turned to Perez to protect a sizeable 9-3 lead. Perez called on his trusty mix of sliders and fastballs to get a ground ball out from Robinson Cano and a pair of swinging strikeouts from Melky Cabrera and Shelley Duncan. In the seventh, after the Indians had bumped their lead to 11-3, Perez easily set down the top of the Yanks' order -- Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu.

That outing, however, was nothing compared to what Perez pulled off Friday night.

This time, his job was to preserve a 1-1 tie in extra innings, picking up where Fausto Carmona's magnificent start had left off.

No sweat. Three fly-ball outs from Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada and Cano got Perez out of the 10th. And in the 11th, Cabrera, Duncan and Damon were his victims once again. When the Indians eked out a run in the bottom of the inning, Perez had earned his first postseason win.

"It's great to win your first game in the playoffs," he said. "It gives me strength."

That's all opposing batters need to hear.


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Perez's strength goes beyond the mental side of the equation. He was stretched out as a starter last offseason in the Dominican Winter League and at Triple-A Buffalo at the outset of '07. So Wedge had no qualms about using him in multiple innings on back-to-back nights.

"He's conditioned more as a reliever now, but he still has that relatively recent history of starting," Wedge said. "We've kept a close eye on him. He's strong, and he did a good job both days. We had the off-day [Saturday], and he'll be good to go [in Sunday's Game 3]."

Perez's exploits on the big-league stage carry particular resonance back home in the Dominican, as he is the sole supporter for his family. He said he thinks about that responsibility every time he punches in for work.

"When I come to the stadium, I only think of my family, because whatever I do there, they're going to feel better and they're going to be watching me," said Perez, who is the only boy in a family of four. "I know when I win, the win belongs to my family, too."

But to get the win, Perez sticks to his simple approach. Focus on the mitt, and the rest will take care of itself.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["division_series" ] }