Peralta takes long path to Opening Day start

March 31st, 2016

MILWAUKEE -- Wily Peralta knows pressure. The Brewers' choice to start Monday opposite Giants ace Madison Bumgarner has never pitched an Opening Day, but he has swung for the fences in the Dominican Republic amid a star-studded field of big leaguers. If you don't think that constitutes pressure, you've never seen a group of Latin Americans play home run derby.

Five or six times over the past several winters, Peralta has gathered with the likes of Bartolo Colon, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Gomez at fields around the Dominican to play softball. Sometimes, they gather on New Year's Eve. Often, they never even get around to playing a real game, but that does not mean there's no competition.

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"When you get into a home run derby, you want to show that you can win," said Peralta, who gets to channel his inner slugger. As a teenager, he tried out for the Brewers and other clubs as an outfielder before scouts focused on his sensational throwing arm and convinced him to convert.

"It's more fun than you can imagine," Peralta said. "I always get second place. [Mariners pitcher] Joel Peralta, he's always up there. Cruz always hits the farthest one, but he never hits the most. Two years ago, we [the pitchers] beat Gomez. He only hit, like, eight in the first round, and I hit 12.

"I was all over him. The whole next Spring Training, I let him know about it."

The pressure will be a different sort of intense at Miller Park on Monday afternoon at 1:10 p.m. CT, when Peralta becomes only the second international signee to start an Opening Day for the Brewers. Teddy Higuera started three season openers from 1986-88, but Higuera was an established professional when the Brewers purchased him from the Ciudad Juarez of the Mexican League in 1983. When Higuera made his big league debut in '85, he was already 27 years old.

Peralta traveled a much longer road to this moment. The son of a fisherman, Peralta didn't have baseballs growing up, so he practiced his throwing mechanics with lemons. He did not start playing organized baseball until he was 11, but says he was touching 96 mph by the time he was 15.

By then, Peralta was focused on making baseball his living. At 13, he left his home in the beach town of Samana on the island's southern coast and moved to the capital of Santo Domingo to live with an uncle named Marcio, Peralta's mother's brother. He attended a school known for producing baseball prospects.

Scouts including Milwaukee's Fernando Arango and Fausto Sosa Pena took note, and in 2005, as a 16-year-old, Peralta signed with the Brewers. It was during a period in which the Brewers experimented by closing their Dominican academy and redirecting those resources to signing fewer, higher-profile prospects -- including, in 2005, the top-rated Dominican pitcher, a right-hander named Rolando Pascual, for $710,000. In the same signing period, Peralta got $515,000.

Pascual never panned out. Peralta did, but his ascent was years in the making.

With no Dominican base, the Brewers sent Peralta directly to the rookie Arizona League the following year. As a 17-year-old who didn't speak English, he pitched 14 games with an 8.76 ERA.

In 2007, he underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and missed the entire season. In 2008, he pitched 34 1/3 innings for two affiliates. In 2009, Peralta reasserted his prospect status while pitching 103 2/3 innings for Class A Wisconsin, where he met the catcher who helped push his career forward.

"I was in Triple-A and they needed a catcher [at Wisconsin] for a couple of days, so they sent me there," said Martin Maldonado, who is entering his fourth full season as the Brewers' backup catcher. "Then we both got sent to High-A in 2010 to start the season, and we've been together most of the time since then.

"He's a way different pitcher [today]. He's way more mature now. A young guy, you always throw hard to impress the scouts and impress the organization. I think it's a way different mentality for him now."

It is easy to see their relationship in action. Peralta is a notoriously emotional pitcher, prone to bouts of bad body language on the mound when something goes wrong. The strong-armed Maldonado's method of recentering his pitcher is to throw a fastball back to the mound with almost as much velocity as Peralta sent it in.

"Pop!" goes Peralta's glove in those moments. The message is clear.

"It has gotten better," Maldonado said. "Knowing him for a while, that kind of stuff goes in an out. I think that's who he is.

"Seeing him out there competing on Opening Day is going to make me so proud."

Maldonado is the one who mentioned Peralta as the organization's longest continuously-tenured pitcher. Chris Capuano arrived in 2003, but he left and came back. Ryan Braun preceded Peralta by only a few months.

"Whoa," Peralta said. "I didn't even think about that. I've been here for a long time, man. I've seen a lot of people get released."

Peralta made it to the Majors by the end of 2012 and, save for a rehab assignment last summer back in Wisconsin, has remained. His breakthrough came in his second full season, 2014, when Peralta went 17-11 with a 3.53 ERA in 32 starts and a career-high 198 2/3 innings.

He fell off in 2015 to 5-10 with a 4.72 ERA while battling a left oblique injury, but did enough the year before, manager Craig Counsell said, to edge Jimmy Nelson and Matt Garza for the Opening Day honor.

"I think he's more than capable of getting back to the level he was in 2014," Counsell said. "He's really primed and in the sweet spot to get back to that level."

Peralta's wife, Denny, and son, Wily Jr., will be in the stands at Miller Park on Monday. Peralta's parents will wait for some sunshine later in the summer to attend in person, but will be watching at home in the Dominican.

Will Peralta think about his long journey when he steps on the field Opening Day?

"Yeah, I'll think about that," Peralta said. "When I got here to the States, I didn't realize what Opening Day is like. Ever since I got to high-A, Double-A, I've been watching how excited people are for Opening Day. I'm really excited to be there. All those years in the organization, it's an honor.

"Finally, I made it."