ARLINGTON, TX - JUNE 30: Martin Perez #33 of the Texas Rangers tips his hat to fans after leaving the game against the Oakland Athletics on June 30, 2012 at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington in Arlington, Texas. The 21-year-old left-hander made his first big league start and was credited for the win. (Photo by Layne Murdoch/Getty Images)
The 21-year old Venezuelan left-hander has been one of the biggest names in the Rangers farm system since signing a six-figure contract in 2007. He earned his first career MLB win on Saturday night.
The sports section of "El Universal", the biggest newspaper in Venezuela's capital city of Caracas, is divided into two categories -- "beisbol" and "futbol".
On Saturday night, Johan Santana's sixth win was the lead story. San Diego Padres infielder Alexi Aramista's 2 HR's were the second. Martin Perez was the third.
Venezuela, a baseball-loving island on the north end of a soccer-mad continent, is more closely connected to the United States than most of its South American neighbors. Its oil reserves first began attracting American interest in the late 19th century, and many of the country's top students attended college in the US. When they began returning home in the 1890's, they brought America's national past-time back with them.
Over a century later, it's one of four countries, and the only one from South America, that competes in the Caribbean World Series. In 2011, Venezuela had 62 players on Opening Day rosters, behind only the Dominican Republic.
Perez was born in Guanare, an agricultural region on the edge of the Andean mountains that block the country's more populous Caribbean coastline from the rest of the continent. He was 17 years old when the Rangers gave him an $850,000 check, a vast sum in a country where the GDP is a little over $10,000.
A year later, he made his first pro appearance in the US, competing against players three and four years older who had just been drafted out of college baseball. He more than held his own, posting a 3.52 ERA in 61 innings in the Northwest League and drawing the eye of scouts throughout baseball.
A 6'0 165 left-hander with three "plus" pitches -- fastball, curveball, changeup -- and velocity in the low 90's, he quickly became one of the most highly-regarded prospects in the game. In 2010, Baseball America ranked him #17 and compared him to Santana, the gold standard for Venezuelan pitchers.
Rangers fans have closely followed his career ever since, but maybe not as closely as "El Universal". A Google search of their website turns up dozens of articles on Perez.
His stats, and the hype around them, have come down in the last few years as he's moved up the minor leagues. He's not receiving many Santana comparisons anymore, although most evaluators think he still has the chance to be a No. 2 starter. However, with most of the Texas pitching staff scattered on the disabled list, the club accelerated his timetable to the majors.
After making his MLB debut a few nights earlier, Perez made his first career major league start on Saturday night with fellow countryman Yorvit Torrealba behind the plate. And in the Rangers' 7-2 victory over Oakland, everything that has made him such an intriguing and occasionally frustrating prospect -- electric stuff, fiery on-field personality, command problems -- was on full display.
Against a punch-less but patient A's team who stretched out almost every at-bat, Perez battled but ultimately got the upper hand. In 5.1 innings of work, he allowed 6 hits and 2 earned runs with a K:BB ratio of 6:1. At times, he struggled with his command, throwing only 59 of his 103 pitches for strikes. He buckled down when he absolutely needed too, using his change-up to get several swinging strikeouts on full counts.
While he went 1-2-3 in an inning only once, his only real trouble came in the fourth. Oakland 1B Chris Carter, who gave him his first taste of the Arlington jet-stream with a cheap opposite-field HR in the second, doubled and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Perez then gave up an RBI single to Brandon Inge and walked his first batter of the game, bringing Mike Maddux and most of the Rangers infield to the mound. He got out of the jam by inducing a weak ground-out from Kurt Suzuki.
It wasn't a dominant effort by any means, but it was enough to receive his first career win. Texas took the lead in the bottom of the fifth, with an assist from an Oakland defense that allowed five unearned runs, highlighted by Josh Hamilton's three-run blast. Ron Washington left Perez in the game to get one more out in the top of the sixth, before pulling his rookie to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd at the Ballpark.
Of course, his auspicious debut doesn't mean all that much in the big picture. He may be sent back down to AAA, and like most young pitchers, he'll struggle with his eventual transition to the major leagues. Maybe he'll be able to fully command his three plus pitches or maybe he won't. It's always possible his arm won't be able to handle the trauma of throwing 200 MLB innings a year.
But for one night, five years after they made Perez a teenage celebrity in his home country, the Rangers were able to pull him off the farm for a badly needed spot start. He gave them 5.1 solid innings and helped move their record to 50-29 on the season.
Not bad for a pitcher still younger than many of the players in the College World Series.