'I cried a little bit': No. 20 prospect Pérez makes long-awaited debut

April 9th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- Wenceel Pérez was getting ready to head back to Toledo at the end of the Mud Hens’ week-long road trip to Iowa when he got a call from the Tigers to keep going east. The team’s No. 20 prospect was heading to the Majors for the first time in his career, called up as an injury replacement for Andy Ibáñez on Monday.

Hours later, after a flight from Des Moines and a layover in Chicago, he was standing in the batter’s box at PNC Park against Pirates reliever and seven-time All-Star Aroldis Chapman, bases loaded, representing the tying run in the eighth inning. It was his second Major League at-bat, and he was facing a reliever he grew up watching.

“And I pitched with him on Playstation,” Pérez said with a smile. “But when you're facing him, you don't remember that stuff.”

It was quite the journey to get there. Getting from Iowa to Pittsburgh was just the start of it.

The way the Tigers’ 7-4 loss to the Pirates unfolded was a journey in itself. On a night when Detroit starter Reese Olson gave up as many earned runs (six) as he had allowed in his previous seven starts combined -- dating back to last August -- the Tigers had struck out nine times in six innings against Pirates starter Mitch Keller. Pérez made his MLB debut pinch-hitting for Zach McKinstry in the seventh inning of what was then a 7-2 game, lining out to right field against lefty reliever Josh Fleming.

“We needed any sort of spark when I put him in originally, hoping to get him on base at the bottom of the order,” manager A.J. Hinch said.

That’s why Pérez is here. His combination of switch-hitting, game-changing speed and instinctive baserunning made him a potential catalyst off the bench for Hinch, a different kind of catalyst than Ibáñez, but a similarly difficult matchup if he can settle in. Though Pérez hit just .212 (7-for-33) over the first week and a half in Triple-A, his five extra-base hits and four stolen bases in as many attempts stood out, as did his Spring Training impression.

The Tigers rallied off Fleming in the eighth to set up a much bigger stage for Pérez in his next at-bat, starting with Riley Greene reaching on an Oneil Cruz error. Mark Canha, pinch-hitting for Kerry Carpenter, took three close pitches below the zone to draw a one-out walk. Colt Keith, seeing his ground ball stopped by a diving Rowdy Tellez off first base, reached a near-elite sprint speed of 29.3 feet per second while bolting down the line to beat the throw to the bag and load the bases. Matt Vierling topped that at 29.6 feet per second on his dribbler to third, leaving Ke’Bryan Hayes with no play at any base as Greene scored.

This was the chance Pérez had dreamed about while growing up in the Dominican Republic. His journey since signing as a teenager in 2016 had seemed like a nightmare at times, from a season lost to the pandemic to injuries halting other seasons. He spent parts of 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022 in Class-A ball, seemingly stuck at West Michigan, before a midseason breakout in 2022 at Double-A Erie. Even then, back issues slowed his progress and denied him a chance in the Majors last year.

“Everything that you [go through], going up and down, past issues with [injuries], when you get here, going through that emotion with your family and friends, I cried a little bit when I was in the airport talking with my family,” Pérez said. “So when I got here, I just smiled: ‘Oh my God, this is so great.’ Thank God to put me here, and to the Tigers for giving me the opportunity.”

After Chapman struck out Javier Báez, he showed little sympathy for Pérez, who fouled off a 99.2 mph first-pitch fastball and an 89.6 mph splitter. A 101.2 mph sinker hit the outside corner for a called third strike, ending the threat.

“I was ready,” he said. “That's the mentality that you have to have when you face a pitcher like that. I'm here, and I have the bat, so I'll be ready to hit if you put me there.”

He’ll be ready again Tuesday for the series finale, where he’ll have added motivation: His parents are arriving from the Dominican Republic.

“This is the first time that my mother and father will come here and see me play in the United States,” he said.