Odalis Perez vowed he was going to be in the best shape of his life in 2008, and he backed up his talk by losing close to 20 pounds.
At first, Major League teams didn't take notice of the new-look Perez. After going 8-11 with a 5.57 ERA with the Royals, Perez, 30, was a free agent and didn't get any significant offers before the new year. January would also pass with no offers. But Perez remained confident that a team would at least offer him a Minor League contract.
"It never crossed my mind that I would never have a job," Perez said. "At 30 years old, I'm a lefty who knows how to pitch. I've been in this business long enough to know what to do. I felt somebody would pick me up. If I had to go to the Minor Leagues, I would have no problem with it."
It wasn't until mid-February, when the Nationals and Red Sox showed interest, but at the persuasion of Jose Rijo, the special assistant to general manager Jim Bowden, Perez accepted a Minor League deal from Washington. At the same time, Perez felt it was a long shot he would make Boston's starting rotation, which included Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
"He is still young enough. We all know how good he can be. With [manager] Manny [Acta] and myself, we might be able to make a difference," Rijo said not too long ago. "I don't think there's anything wrong with Odalis. He just needs to be on a team where he can find peace. He needs to be with people that really care about him, and I think he's going to find it here. He has always been healthy."
Perez is healthy and it appears that Acta gave him the peace he was looking for. After watching two Major League starts and seeing that Perez is in the best shape of his life, Acta made the decision that Perez would be the Opening Day starter against the Braves this Sunday night at the new Nationals Park. Acta said he made the decision because Perez had more Major League experience than anyone on the staff.
"I was trying to make the team," a humble Perez said. "I'm happy because I'm getting this opportunity that a lot of people wanted. I know if I came to this team, I was going to have a chance to be in the starting rotation. It never crossed my mind [I would be the Opening Day starter]."
The start will have historical value. Perez will be the first Major League hurler to throw a regular-season pitch at Nationals Park. This will be the first Opening Day start of his nine-year career.
"That's history," Perez said. "I'm the first guy to pitch at the stadium. It's a brand new stadium. During the first pitch, there will be a lot of pictures. It's a great feeling for me to be able to throw the first pitch."
Perez will face the Braves for the eighth time in his career. He is 1-3 with a 5.21 ERA during his career against them. Perez started his career with the Braves and played for them for parts of three seasons.
"It's the team I came up with. I have a lot of respect for their manager [Bobby Cox] and their coaching staff," Perez said. "I don't know every one on that team, but I have respect for them. But when it comes to a game, that's different. I have to give the best I've got to beat them."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.