- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Odalis Perez has been with the Washington Nationals less than a month, and he faced major league hitters in a Nationals uniform for the first time yesterday.

Yet when the possibility of throwing the first meaningful pitch in the team’s new stadium came up, the 30-year-old stated his case.

“I’ve been here long enough to be mentally and physically ready for any situation,” he said. “If I got the first game of the season, you know, ready to go. Do I have to even think about who are we facing, who I’m facing as a pitcher? No. I’m fine.”

It would be an odd sight, the Nationals opening their new ballpark on national TV by trotting out a pitcher they signed to a minor league contract in the first week of camp to face John Smoltz and the Atlanta Braves.

Yet that scenario could play out two weeks from tonight. At this point, it isn’t that far-fetched.

If he stays on a regular rest schedule, Perez’s turn to pitch would fall on March 30 for the Nationals’ home opener. And while both manager Manny Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire said there’s time to make changes — like moving John Patterson up a day or throwing Jason Bergmann on an extra day’s rest — Perez is a candidate to be the Opening Day starter.

He looked the part for three innings yesterday, throwing 21 of his first 25 pitches for strikes and giving up three infield hits during that time. The left-hander labored through the fourth, giving up a wind-aided two-run homer to Andre Ethier, and was responsible for the two runners that scored off Eude Brito in the fifth.

“I liked what I saw. His off-speed was good, especially the breaking balls against lefties,” Acta said. “You could say [he ran out of gas], but I think he made a good pitch [to Ethier]. That ball was well-hit, but it also went in the wind stream.”

Hamstrung by problems obtaining a work visa from the Dominican Republic, Perez couldn’t face major league hitters until special assistant to the general manager Jose Rijo used his contacts to speed up Perez’s visa application. Perez got the visa Wednesday and Washington moved him into John Lannan’s slot against the Dodgers on Saturday.

He’ll make two more starts before the opener, and the Nationals’ other pitchers all have three left. St. Claire said he could wait “right up to the end” to switch the schedule, but there are reasons to think Perez could be the pick.

He is the only pitcher on the Nationals’ roster who has pitched in the All-Star Game or a playoff game. Opening the new stadium isn’t on par with either of those, but if Washington wants a pitcher with big-game experience to manage the extra attention he’ll receive that night, Perez is their only option.

“Absolutely [that experience is important],” said Rijo, the 1990 World Series MVP with the Reds. “It’s a special pitching moment for whoever gets the ball that day.”

Perez broke into the majors as a 21-year-old among veteran Braves pitchers Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in 1998. He was part of a trade to the Dodgers for Gary Sheffield in 2002, and Perez thrived in Los Angeles, winning 15 games and finishing fourth in the National League in ERA that year.

He pitched Games 1 and 4 of the 2004 NLDS for the Dodgers and signed a $24 million deal with the Dodgers in 2005.

But he was traded to Kansas City in 2006, and posted a 5.57 ERA as the Royals’ No. 2 starter last season before missing the last month and a half with a left knee sprain.

“I’m pretty sure he’s a little disappointed that he went from being one of the richest pitchers in baseball to what he is,” Rijo said. “But there’s something he’s got in his favor. He told me he’s going to make people believe in him like they were before and make sure he proves people wrong. He’s on a mission this year.”

Perez hasn’t been shy about making predictions, either. He said yesterday he can pitch 200 innings and win 15 games if he stays healthy.

He has only posted double-digit victories twice in his career. But considering he’s on a trip that might take him from minor league camp to the national spotlight in a matter of weeks, nothing can be ruled out at this point.

“As a professional, you have your ups and downs,” Perez said. “I’ve had my great years, I”ve had my bad years and everyone goes through that. I know I can go out there and prove myself.”

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