Alex Perez stood before his locker Tuesday afternoon unable to figure out why his No. 8 jersey wasn’t there waiting for him.
Before each of his first 199 games, there it was, pressed and ready to go. This time it was nowhere to be found.
He thought for a second that his teammates, who constantly reminded him that Game 200 was fast approaching, might be pulling an early April Fool’s Day prank.
But then equipment manager Sean Fizer saw Perez’s puzzlement and approached. It had a yellow stain on it, Fizer said, under the collar on the right side above the maroon number. He was taking care of it.
So it wasn’t until head coach Pat Mason came down onto the field, broke up the pregame routine and gathered the team with a jersey clutched behind his back that Perez realized something was up.
“After this hard weekend we just had at Florida State,” Perez recalls Mason saying, “we just want to show our gratitude and our support of you, Alex Perez.”
The jersey Mason handed him was free of all stains. Of course, there had not been one. Instead, something new: a maroon ‘C,’ boldly contrasted by the white jersey so there would be no mistaking it.
“It was a really, really special moment,” Perez said. First teammates clapped for him. Then they hugged him. “It was all kind of surreal.”
Two days earlier the Hokies were in Tallahassee, holding on to a one-run lead in the ninth inning with an ACC series on the line. A win would have meant taking the weekend and the second series victory over a top-ten opponent this season.
The spray chart for Florida State’s last hope, Josh Delph, almost convinced Mason to move Perez from second base to shortstop. The second-year head coach wanted his most trusted defender wherever the ball had the highest probability of ending up. He decided against it.
Delph rolled over the 1-2 offering from Luke Scherzer, kicking a weak dribbler to the right side. Mason was instantly thankful he kept Perez put.
The Miami-native, who had made Sportscenter’s Top 10 Plays two days earlier with a Jeter-esque jump throw deep in the hole from shortstop, charged hard. He fielded off his left foot, dropped his release and fired high and wide of Brendon Hayden at first. Two runs scored and for the second-straight day the Hokies lost a late-inning lead. This time, Perez couldn’t help but feel like it was his fault.
Perez has started every game since he arrived on Tech’s campus in 2011, one of four current Division 1 seniors able to make that claim. As a result, he is the nation’s ironman. With exactly 200 consecutive starts under his belt, he is the NCAA leader in consecutive games started.
It wasn’t always so, however, that Perez arrived at the park, knowing his name would be penciled into a starting role. For the first few months of his freshman year, he awoke every gameday morning curious about his role. As game after game passed by, eventually he caught on. His job as the team’s starting second baseman was secure.
Security hasn’t always meant success, though, something he learned his sophomore season. He batted .225 that year, and primarily because of a shift to shortstop, committed 22 errors – nine more than anyone else on the team.
It was during this time that Perez’s attitude surrounding the game was developed. In high school, he was named Immaculata-LaSalle’s athlete of the year. He was the Miami Herald pitcher of the year and a first-team all-county and first-team Miami-Dade selection. Success was always there for him, until all of a sudden it wasn’t.
“My sophomore year was tough for me,” he said. “It really got in my head, but now when I have success or I fail it doesn’t bother me. I’m the say way, even keel. Not too high and not too low. That’s pretty much the best thing you can have when you play baseball, and it took me until my sophomore year when I struggled to learn that.”
Still, Perez remained a permanent fixture in Tech’s lineup. A selfless player, he put an even heavier emphasis on his passive approach to hitting, extending pitch counts, advancing runners and making productive outs. With names like Mark Zagunis, Andrew Rash, Chad Pinder and Tyler Horan in the lineup, Perez was content to be a table-setter and was never asked to be anything more.
This past fall, however, with all those big bats gone from the program, Mason, who attributes Perez’s streak to “a little bit of luck and a whole lot of skill,” decided it was time for him to make the next logical progression as a hitter.
“In September when we started practicing, we tried to get him more aggressive in his at bats,” said Mason. “He bought in, he worked hard on it all fall. He swung and missed more this fall than he probably did in the previous three falls, which was a good thing because now he’s 0-1 rather than a (fly out or a ground out).”
From a young age, Perez, like most hitters, was told that strikeouts were to be avoided at all costs. Now, as he stepped into an expanded offensive role, they would be a necessary evil.
“It was definitely different,” said Perez. “I was told my first three years here to be a leadoff type of hitter and be a contact type of hitter. See a lot of pitches, get the barrel on the ball, get on base. In the past I would just take, take, take until I had one or two strikes and then just battle from there,” Perez said. “This season I’ve been swinging at a lot more 0-0, 1-0, 2-0 pitches, which are obviously the pitches you want to swing at and it’s really helped me.”
The improvements are staggering. Halfway through the season he has more home runs and triples than in any year prior, his average is 100 points better than his first three years and his slugging percentage is up more than 250 points from any previous season. He ranks in the top 10 in the ACC in several offensive statistics including home runs, batting average and at bats, and leads the league in triples. He’s on pace for the fewest strikeouts in his career.
As much as the total revamping of his approach has helped, so too has the countless extra hours he puts into the weight room and hitting drills.
“He may be a little guy, but he can throw up some pretty big weight in the weight room,” said Logan Bible, Perez’s roommate on the road and pregame hitting partner. “He comes in after practice each and every day when guys are going back to their apartments and he gets his extra hacks in. He always had worked harder than most, but with it being his senior year you can see he had an extra gear.”
If the improvement in almost every offensive category serves as a year-long validation of the change in style and extra effort, no moment served as a better snapshot of it than his Sunday home run against Virginia.
Down by one run in the bottom of the eighth inning and looking for the sweep of the then-No. 1 Cavaliers, Perez stood at the plate with the tying run on second base. Ahead in the count 2-0, he took a mighty hack at a belt-high fastball and parked it over the fence in right field, launching the Hokies to their first three-game sweep over Virginia since 1987.
Never did the thought of making a productive out ever enter his head.
“That was his moment to shine,” said Hayden. “It was his moment and he knew he needed to step up. And he did.”
As unforgettable as the moment was for the Hokies, it was made exponentially sweeter by the fact that Perez was the hero.
“He’s the most respectful person you could ever be around,” Mason said. “He is the first one to pick up a teammate if they make an error of if things aren’t going good. He’s the first one to pat someone on the back or reach a hand out. He’s the first one to say something nice to you or congratulate you when you have a baby. He’s awesome. The way he talks and treats alumni or kids who come to the ballpark, or recruits. He just treats everyone with the same respect and kindness. It’s off the charts.”
As seems to be the case frequently, a conversation about Perez the ballplayer turned into one about Perez the person.
“He came in, and he hasn’t changed who he is one bit,” Bible said. “He wasn’t trying too hard to fit in with the upperclassmen when he was a freshman or act goody-goody in front of coach. He always plays with a chip on his shoulder but he’s one of the best guys I’ve ever met in my life. The day I get married, if I ever get married, he’s going to be one of the guys right there with me.”
Hayden, who too has played a significant role since his freshman year and will play in his 200th game this season, noticed Perez’s kind nature in their joint recruiting visit. Since then, their friendship has blossomed.
“He’s going to do anything it takes to win, but also anything for his team,” said Hayden. “Off the field he’s just a good guy. He’s an incredible teammate. If you need him and anything you need of him he’ll do.”
The sentiment from the team to its leader after the throw went wide and the game was lost wasn’t just lip service or purely a recanting of statistics. One by one, coaches and players approached Perez and told him the simple truth. The next 100 times they find themselves in that situation, they’d rather have it hit to him than anyone else on the field.
“That made me feel a little bit better,” Perez said. “I still felt like I let the team down a little bit, but that mindset that I had, never too high, never too low, helped me come back and let me be the leader that this team needs me to be.”
At 16-14 on the year and 6-6 in conference play, the Hokies find themselves in the middle of a muddled ACC race. Neither Mason nor Perez think Tech has played to its full capability yet, and any run the team makes into the postseason will have its kind captain leading the charge.
“His most special talent is how and who he is as a person,” Mason said. “I don’t want to make it sound like there is a flaw with him baseball wise, but it’s incredible.”