With a heavy heart, Perez gets big hit

SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco Giants outfielder Juan Perez was preparing himself in a training room near the team's dugout early in Game 5 Sunday when he overheard a major league official outside the door say that St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras had been killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.

What? Oscar had been killed? Perez could not believe it. This cannot be true, he thought. Please, do not let this be true, he pleaded. Taveras was just 22 years old. Perez and Taveras, good friends and former teammates in the winter leagues, had played against each other just 10 days earlier in the National League Championship Series.

While the World Series game continued, Perez raced up to the stairs to the clubhouse and grabbed his smart phone to see if the story was true. Sadly, there were more than 20 text messages from friends and relatives confirming the death of Taveras, as well as his girlfriend. Tears rolled down his cheeks as Perez read the messages. He was sitting and staring at a horribly graphic photo of the car after the accident as Giants reliever Santiago Casilla entered the Giants clubhouse.

"No, put that away," Casilla told Perez. "You can't see that."

Perez put the phone away and tried to concentrate on the game, which the Giants were leading 1-0. But how could he concentrate on a baseball game when his friend had just been killed? The Giants outfielder thought about how he and Taveras had met in 2009 when Perez was playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He thought about Taveras' major league debut. He thought about how Taveres had homered against the Giants in the NLCS and how he had made the final out of that series.

He even thought that if he and the Giants had not beaten the Cardinals in the NLCS, his friend would still be alive.

"It's tough. He's a really close friend of mine," Perez said. "I know his family. I know his mother, his dad, his brother. We played winter ball together. It's a huge loss, not only for his family but for his teammates and the people who care about him.

"You never know what can happen in life. It's crazy. I can't explain it."

As the game progressed and the Giants extended their lead to 2-0, infielder Matt Duffy saw Perez stretching on the floor by the indoor batting cage. He could see how hard his teammate was taking the news.

"We just played against Taveras. It's just terrible," Duffy said. "All of us felt it. I was just taken completely aback by it and I don't even know the kid, so I can only imagine how Juan must feel."

As the innings passed, Perez gradually began to focus on the game and his job. Teammate Joaquin Arias told him, "Stay strong." Gregor Blanco told him, "Focus on the game. Then we can talk about [Taveras] later."

"I started to regroup," Perez said. "I knew it was getting closer for me to get into the game. That took everything away and I just focused on the game. When I found out the news, it was hard because I was thinking too much about it."

Giants manager Bruce Bochy did not know about Taveras' death, let alone Perez's emotions, until after the game. He inserted Perez into the game in the sixth inning as a pinch-runner and Perez stayed in the game in left field. He made a good catch on Salvador Perez's long drive toward the left-field wall with a runner on first base in the seventh. Then he came to bat in the bottom of the eighth with two runners on base and Wade Davis on the mound.

Davis was one of the most successful relievers in baseball this season. He had a 1.00 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 72 innings during the regular season. He allowed no home runs and didn't allow an extra-base hit until August.

As Perez got ready to bat, Giants catcher Buster Posey told him to keep his swing short against Davis. Looking for a pitch middle-in, Perez worked the count to 3-2. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, he swung and slammed a drive off the top of the center-field fence, missing a home run by inches. The drive scored two runs and effectively sealed the Giants' 5-0 victory that put them one win away from the world championship.

"It was the biggest at-bat of his career. I'm so proud of him," Blanco said. "I told him, 'You're a great ballplayer.'"

Perez was credited with a double and wound up on third base after a wild throw to the plate. When he reached third base, he looked up at the sky and thought about his friend.

"He was a humble guy who loved to baseball," Perez said. "His family loved baseball. His father played pro ball. His brother played pro ball. He was one of the top prospects in the minors. He came up with a lot of expectations in the big leagues. Now he's going to be missed by a lot of people."

Perez patiently answered questions in English and Spanish from several waves of reporters. He said it had been an emotional night, but that he was happy after the victory. As hard as the death was to take, he said, "you still have to do your job on the field."

"This isn't something you can prepare for," Duffy said. "This isn't having an 0-for-20 streak. This isn't making an error in a key situation. This is tough. For him to still be able to take a breath and do his job, that's impressive."

It was. Taveras would be proud of Perez.