- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

GOODYEAR, ARIZ. (AP) - Chris Perez runs his fingers through the thickening facial growth and tugs at one of baseball’s best beards.

“It’s just a look,” he says, explaining his bushy cheeks that haven’t crossed paths with a razor for more than a year. “It doesn’t have to be a closer’s look, but I do get to have a little more liberties. I guess it’s my calling card. I have to have it.”

The closer.

Not only does Perez look the part, he seems to have been born to play it.

Free-spirited and easily approachable, Perez isn’t intimidating _ except when he’s perched atop the mound and staring down a hitter digging in at the plate. With a God-given, lively arm and a beat-me-if-you-can attitude, Perez emerged last season as one of the majors’ top relievers.

He converted 23 saves and posted a 1.71 ERA, the league’s second-lowest mark. At 25, Perez became the youngest pitcher in club history to notch 20 saves. The Indians may have had a rotten season, losing 93 games amid a lengthy roll call of key injuries. But Perez’s 2010 couldn’t have gone any better.

“It was a tremendous year for me personally,” he said after making his spring exhibition debut. “Obviously, I was able to finally achieve what I always wanted to do in this game, which is to be a closer. I had a really good second half and that kind of validates all the hard work and years that it took to get to this point.”

Perez has the ideal temperament to close. He’s cocky, but cool. He’s got a fearsome fastball that he’ll throw anytime to anyone.

Perhaps his bio on Twitter sums him up best: “Chris Perez, relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, former UM Hurricane. Just a normal guy with an arm like a (blanking) cannon.”

He’s always had the physical gifts, well, at least one notable gift. His right arm.

From the time he started playing T-ball as a kid, Perez, whose dad got as far as the lower minor leagues as a catcher, played behind the plate. Through the bars of a catcher’s mask he learned about pitch counts, location, cutoffs and defense.

“I loved it,” Perez said, recalling those days wearing the gear. “I loved blocking balls, throwing guys out at second. You’re a part of every play. It’s fun.”

Never once did he consider pitching. It didn’t have any appeal and Perez certainly never thought about it as a possible career. That all changed during his junior year at Pendleton (Fla.) High School, when his team ran out of pitchers during a tournament.

His coach asked for volunteers to take the ball, and Perez offered his services. He had no concept of mechanics and only hoped to embarrass himself. He was as raw as it gets.

Then one pitch changed everything.

“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.

“His is a little overplayed,” Perez joked. “I’m not going to use any dye or anything like that. He’s got Just For Men up there for sure. Nothing’s that black.”