Pérez punches out a career-high 10 in one of best starts of his career

August 20th, 2023

LOS ANGELES – Once the 2023 season is over, fans and pundits will debate whether the Marlins made the right decision to temporarily shut down rookie right-hander in order to monitor his workload.

After two lackluster starts in his return to the big leagues, Pérez regained his dominant form by striking out a career-high 10 batters over six scoreless innings on Saturday afternoon in a 3-1 loss to the Dodgers in Game 1 of a doubleheader at Dodger Stadium. Unfortunately for the Marlins, Pérez’s performance was wasted when righty David Robertson allowed three runs in the decisive eighth.

Miami got swept in the twin bill despite another strong performance from its starter in the nightcap. Lefty Braxton Garrett allowed three runs over six innings, but Mookie Betts took him deep twice in another 3-1 loss. The Marlins (64-61) dropped a half-game behind the Cubs (63-59) and Reds (64-60) for the final National League Wild Card spot, and into a tie with the D-backs (64-61).

At 20 years, 126 days old, Pérez is the first pitcher since Mariners righty Félix Hernández (19 years, 129 days on Aug. 15, 2005) to record double-digit strikeouts at that age or younger. He also joins Dwight Gooden (1984) and Bert Blyleven (’71) as the only pitchers 20 years or younger with six-plus scoreless innings, 10-plus strikeouts and zero walks in a start.

“I was ahead in the count there, didn't allow walks, very few base hits,” Pérez said via interpreter Luis Dorante Jr. “I felt like it was pretty much one of the best games I had, including the strikeout record.”

Prior to being optioned to Double-A Pensacola on July 7, Pérez went at least five frames in seven of his final eight starts and had already surpassed his career high in innings (84 1/3). His 2.36 ERA through his first 11 career starts (minimum 50 innings) was the lowest for a pitcher 20 years old or younger in the Live Ball Era (since 1920).

But Pérez exhibited rust in his first two starts back, surrendering eight runs in 8 2/3 innings. Here is a comparison of his numbers before the sabbatical (11 starts) and after entering Saturday:

ERA: 2.36 vs. 8.31
Strike percentage: 63.8% vs. 60%
Starts of 5+ IP: 8 vs. 0
Steals: 4 vs. 4

Credit to Pérez, who put in the work to improve his breaking pitches leading up to Saturday’s matinee. He cruised with a three-pitch mix of a four-seamer (37.8%), slider (33.3%) and curveball (21.1%). Sixteen of his career-high 22 swings and misses came on the slider and curveball.

“I had to check the bio to make sure he was 20 years old,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I couldn't believe it. He's [Sandy] Alcantara-lite, and I know that he's got a good person to follow, and he's got a bright future, man. He’s special.”

The inability to get ahead in the count cost Pérez his first two times back on the mound, but he improved upon that trend by tallying 14 of 20 first-pitch strikes on Saturday. That was another reason why he permitted just two hits across the 90-pitch outing: a two-out Chris Taylor double in the second and a one-out Will Smith single in the fourth.

“It's the same strategy just going ahead first pitches, try and stay in the zone,” Pérez said. “I'm very grateful. Thank God for that, for not allowing walks, because commonly with a walk, you will have runs. It's something that comes along with the walks, so [I’m] very happy with the outing today.”

Pérez admitted to possessing extra concentration facing the National League West-leading Dodgers, just like when he squared off against former MVPs Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout in May. Pérez also felt comfortable on the Chavez Ravine mound because it was the site of the 2022 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game, where he tossed a scoreless inning as one of baseball’s top prospects.

“He was pretty good in the first half, really good in the first half, but against an offense like this, maybe [this was his best start],” Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said. “I think the only time he's been really hit was against the Braves’ offense [on July 1]. But [the Dodgers'] offense is right there with the Braves’ offense up and down the lineup. Ten strikeouts, not too much hard contact, controlled the running game when there were guys on. He was excellent today. He does that, we're in a good spot.”