VIERA, Fla. - It was almost midway through the season last year when Ryan Perry placed a phone call.
Perry, a 6-foot-4, 215-lb. right-hander with a power fastball and an intimidating mound presence, was confident that he had the ability to pitch at the major league level. He got a cup of coffee with the Nationals in May, appearing in seven games out of the bullpen before being sent back down to the minors.
A former first-round pick of the Tigers with loads of talent, Perry knew he still had a job waiting for him in the ‘pen at Triple-A Syracuse, but he was getting frustrated. The 26-year-old loved being a relief pitcher back in college, when his University of Arizona squad played three times a week and he knew when he’d be pitching. He could properly prepare himself for those games, throwing side sessions early in the week, leaving his arm strong and fresh for the weekend games.
But in the pros, Perry didn’t have that luxury. Pitching in relief in the big leagues, you need to be ready to enter a game pretty much every single day, and when you’re the 12th and final guy in the bullpen, you have little room for error. That’s why, when Perry got sent down to Triple-A in early June, he called his agent and said he wanted to make the transition to being a starter.
Perry’s agent contacted the Nationals, and with the team needing more starting pitching depth, the two sides agreed to start stretching Perry out into a starter despite the fact it was a role he barely had any familiarity with. Prior to the 2012 season, Perry had not started a single game in his professional career and had made just nine starts at Arizona before being moved into the bullpen.
Still, Perry was confident the move was the right one. The starting rotation was the place for him.
“During a long season, you have one bad outing (out of the bullpen), you kind of go in the doghouse, you don’t pitch for a week,” Perry said. “Then you’re just on the afterburners of everyone else and you get the innings that nobody wants to pitch in. (With the Tigers), there was like a 14-day stand where I threw an inning and a third, and they expect you to stay sharp.
“I definitely know I’ve got some ability that needs to shine, but I need to prove it, and I felt starting would allow me to really sit out there and repeat mechanics and feel the release of a good pitch and feel the release of a bad pitch, because out of the bullpen it’s a lot harder. You don’t have a chance to throw (bullpen sessions) like a starter does, you just sit there, because you might have to pitch that day or throw three innings the next day.”
After the decision was made to make Perry a starter, the Nationals sent him down to Double-A Harrisburg, where he started the process of building up arm strength and endurance. The results were positive nearly from the get-go, as Perry put up a 2.84 ERA over 13 starts at Harrisburg, allowing just three home runs in 73 innings.
“I felt good,” Perry said. “Honestly, I adapted to it. Once I was getting up to like four and five innings fairly quick, I was like, ‘Whoa. I feel a lot better than I would expect.’ “
Perry realized he couldn’t be the same pitcher out of the bullpen that he was in the rotation. The days of being able to consistent pump his fastball at 95-97 mph were over, and the strikeout numbers would fall. But Perry was able to work more on location, using his sinker down in the zone to get easy outs.
“Normally, I would just come in and throw one inning as hard as I can, but yeah, it gave me a chance to feel like I was hitting my spot and not just throwing to a box, a strike zone,” he says. “Now I have halves of a plate. Yeah, a lot changed, but I definitely felt great. I progressed as a pitcher tremendously, and I was pretty much able to triple my innings from any other year. I was definitely worn out and tired at the end of it, but it definitely gave me a fresh insight into what it’s going to be like this year, hopefully, regarded I stay a starter.”
After Harrisburg’s season ended, Perry went to the Arizona Fall League to get in some additional work in a talent-rich environment. He posted 4.98 ERA in six starts there, mixing in some rough outings with a couple stellar ones. (Over one two-start, nine-inning stretch, Perry allowed just one hit, no runs and struck out seven.)
Perry admits that his body wore down a bit toward the end of last season due to the workload, but he enters spring this year feeling fresh and strong. He doesn’t exactly feel settled now, he says, but has a nice base to work off. And while the Nationals have their starting rotation filled with proven major leaguers, Perry knows that if he can continue in a positive direction, there’s an opportunity for him to become the sixth starter in the organization, a guy who could be called upon should one of the starting five go down with an injury.
“We have one of the best starting rotations in baseball for years to come, so it’s an honor to be even mentioned behind them,” Perry said. “Heaven forbid, something happens to one of them, that’s what I’m here for. I’m here to prove that I can get outs so when one of them goes down and we need a spot-start, they’ll have confidence in calling me up.”