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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS / NATIONAL LEAGUE

Suddenly, Braves' Perez Is a Leading Man

Backup catcher enters the spotlight with sterling postseason efforts.

October 15, 1999|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Understudies are expected to excel when plans go awry because that's their job.

Eddie Perez is good in the role.

The Atlanta Braves turned to Perez during one of their many difficult moments this season, and the backup catcher became a show-stopper. Perez has been among the Braves' unsung contributors since all-star Javy Lopez suffered a season-ending knee injury in July.

Perez has proved he's capable of more than his previously limited duties while helping the Braves continue the major leagues' longest-running success story. And although Perez enjoys the spotlight, he's prepared to return to the background when the time comes.

His timely offensive contributions have helped the Braves take a 2-0 lead against the New York Mets in the best-of-seven National League championship series, with Game 3 tonight at Shea Stadium.

The Braves considered Perez a potential leading man even before things changed this season. Impressive reviews support that belief.

"It's good to see Eddie finally getting some recognition," said third baseman Chipper Jones, one of the Braves' biggest stars. "Eddie has been a great player for this ballclub for a long time, but he hasn't gotten the acclaim of some of the other guys.

"It's tough because there are so many guys on the club who get the job done. Sometimes, some guys don't get the recognition they deserve, especially playing behind Javy. That's why it's so great to see Eddie step it up the way he has. Everyone now sees what Eddie can do."

He has done much in the championship series.

Perez doubled and hit a solo home run--providing an insurance run--during the Braves' 4-2 victory in the opener. The sixth-inning homer stirred chants of "Ed-die, Ed-die!" from the crowd at Turner Field.

The encore was better.

Perez hit a go-ahead, two-run homer in the Braves' four-run sixth during a 4-3 victory in Game 2. Not surprisingly, another "Ed-die, Ed-die!" chorus followed for the Braves' latest October idol.

"That's the easiest name for them to say, that's why they're saying it," Perez said, jokingly. "I'm really not thinking about that. I'm just trying to do the job so they can keep cheering for me."

Doing his job helped Perez earn an expanded role.

He was content being Lopez's backup and four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux's primary catcher. Perez understood his place in the Braves' hierarchy, and the four-year veteran had carved himself a nice niche.

Then Lopez's season ended in July, adding to the Braves' major losses because of illness and injury. Perez was thrust into the No. 1 job for the first time since ascending through Atlanta's farm system.

Perez, 31, started a career-high 86 games (playing in 104 overall) and batted .249 with seven homers and 30 runs batted in. He received high marks from management for handling the entire pitching staff regularly for the first time while playing through pain.

He has suffered from tendinitis in his knees, and Perez will undergo surgery after the season for torn knee cartilage.

The Braves won their eighth straight division title, establishing a major league record. The Braves acknowledge they miss Lopez's power and clutch hitting, but his replacement has been outstanding.

"Javy put up numbers last year, but Eddie is not an out-guy by any means," Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox said. "He's a great defensive catcher. He can catch and throw and work the pitchers--and he can hit too. He is probably not going to hit 35 or 40 home runs like Javy could, but he might.

"He can hit good pitchers. I've seen him in the playoffs before, and going down the stretch off big-time closers. So it's not unusual for Eddie to hit a home run or drive in a big run. He's done a fantastic job. Just super."

Perez is more critical.

He is displeased about his drop-off offensively. Perez batted .336 last season with six homers and 32 RBIs in only 61 games.

Perez's teammates said he shouldn't be hard on himself because he had to concentrate more on catching because of his increased role.

He said that's no excuse.

"You know, I put up good numbers last year," Perez said. "This year, I don't think I'm doing the job I want to do hitting.

"I'm concentrating more on catching because we've got a good pitching staff and I have to. That's what I'm trying to do. When it's time to hit, I hit. I just have to keep working harder."

Lopez is expected to return next season after undergoing knee surgery, and Perez is fine with his former role.

"I'm still the backup catcher," Perez said. "I'm just doing the job because Javy is not here."

Exactly what a good understudy is supposed to do.

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