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“I hit 93 (mph),” he said. “It was the first time I was ever clocked. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just throwing.

“From that time on, my dad’s like, ‘You are not catching anymore.’”

Perez initially resisted a move to the mound. He didn’t see any future as a pitcher and couldn’t understand why everyone was insisting he make the switch. Eventually, he caved, and after a brief stint as a starter in college at Miami, he’s been a reliever ever since.

Drafted as a closer by St. Louis in 2006, Perez studied some of the game’s top closers, hoping to pick up tips on how to get those precious, final three outs. He had seven saves for the Cardinals in ‘08 and one more in ‘09 before being dealt to the Indians for infielder Mark DeRosa.

He was tabbed to be Cleveland’s set-up man before last season, but when Kerry Wood was injured during training camp, Perez temporarily inherited the closer’s job. It became his permanent role when the Indians shipped Wood and his $10 million contract to the Yankees before the deadline.

Perez didn’t just take the job. He ran with it.

In 32 games from June 28 until the end of the season, he posted a 0.53 ERA, a startling number that would fog up any stat geek’s glasses.

Perez loves the pressure, he thrives on it. While others may buckle under the tense, stomach-churning final innings, Perez relishes the chance to lock up a ‘W’ for his team. Once he gets manager Manny Acta’s call and exits the bullpen, Perez loves the spotlight at the center of the diamond.

It’s what he lives for.

“It’s you and everybody knows it’s you,” Perez said. “Nobody’s coming in after you. That’s probably what I enjoy the most about the job. But the best part is getting that last out, stranding that winning run on second or third. And preferably striking out their biggest hitter.”

Perez doesn’t want to be a one-hit wonder as a closer. One great season won’t suffice. He wants many more.

“The history of baseball is that there are a whole bunch of guys that had one of two good years,” he said. “I don’t want to be that. I want to be here for the long haul and have a great career.”

The beard’s staying. In fact, facial hair _ loads of it _ seems to be baseball’s newest trend.

It sure worked for San Francisco’s Brian Wilson, last year’s saves leader, who won a World Series title looking like a grizzly bear.

Perez won’t take it that far.

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