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Pirates

Well-rested Perez counting days until camp starts

| Friday, Jan. 28, 2005

The only winter ball Oliver Perez played this year was a few games of catch in parking lots during stops on the Pirates winter caravan tour.

The lanky left-hander hasn't fired a hard strike since picking up the victory in the Pirates' season finale last October. For the first time. he grudgingly opted out of playing in the Mexican winter league.

"Right now, I feel good," Perez said Thursday. "My arm is rested. My arm is telling me it's ready for spring training."

The way Pirates pitchers have been falling to injuries -- the latest casualty, former No. 1 pick John Van Benschoten, had shoulder surgery yesterday morning -- the club might be tempted to pack Perez in Styrofoam when he ventures out in public.

"That's the only reason they have me along on the caravan, to take care of Ollie," pitching coach Spin Williams said with a laugh.

Williams was only half-kidding.

Yesterday, during a lunchtime Pirates caravan stop in Greensburg, there was no limit on the number of autographs Perez was allowed to ink with his gifted left arm. But general manager Dave Littlefield quickly ticked off a laundry list of other factors he considered when setting up Perez's offseason training program.

"We're very cognizant of the workloads, the age of the pitcher, physical development, what they've done in the past (as an) amateur and throughout our minor league system, innings, starts, pitches, winter leagues, spring trainings -- all those types of things," Littlefield said.

When they acquired Perez, 23, from San Diego in the Brian Giles deal, the Pirates were concerned about the lefty's heavy workload. They asked him not to play for the Culiacan Tomato Growers, his hometown team in the Mexican league.

Yet, Perez threw 30 1/3 innings for Culiacan, then went to Pirates mini-camp in January 2004, and then rejoined the Tomato Growers in time for the playoffs and Caribbean World Series.

"There's a certain pressure on him, because of where he's from, to play for the local team," Littlefield said.

For the first few weeks of the season with the Pirates, Perez often was skipped in the rotation. That gave him extra time to rest and refine his mechanics with sideline sessions.

Even so, in his first full season in the majors, Perez tossed a team-high 196 innings. He went 12-10 with a 2.98 ERA. He struck out 10 or more batters in nine of his 30 starts.

"I was a little tired at the end of the season," Perez said. "I was ready to go home and rest and (be with) my family. This year, I want to finish stronger."

So, instead of toiling for the Tomato Growers, Perez went on a vacation with his sister. He resumed running in mid-December. He did not throw his first sideline until the final few days of mini-camp.

"We've been going slow with him, but he'll be ready," Williams said. "We were playing catch out in the parking lot the last couple of days. He's ready to go right now."

Whether Perez is the No. 1 starter this summer depends upon how well Kip Wells bounces back from carpal tunnel surgery. Lefty Mark Redman and righty Josh Fogg also have locked up spots in the rotation.

Van Benschoten's injury has clouded the jumble for the final spot. The candidates include Dave Williams, Ryan Vogelsong, Todd Ritchie, Joe Roa and perhaps young left-hander Zach Duke.

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