PORT CHARLOTTE — Manager Joe Maddon's nickname for reliever Joel Peralta is "El Campeon," Spanish for "the champion," because as Maddon sees it, Peralta has been a fighter throughout his career.
Peralta, 34, signed by the Rays to pitch in the late innings, also is a late bloomer. A failed infielder, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Dominican reinvented himself as a pitcher and at one point considered walking away from baseball.
But Peralta kept his faith and now is one of the few locks to make the Rays' bullpen.
"He's a survivor," Maddon said. "He's one of those guys who every year had to come out and prove himself. He's probably never walked into camp feeling comfortable about his lot and position, and I think he does here now. He knows he's on the team.
"He's had to … overcome the fact he's not big and (convince) people 'Even though I'm not big, I can get guys out.' And I think he's done a great job at that."
Peralta signed with the A's in 1997 with dreams of becoming a big-league shortstop.
"But I couldn't hit at all," he said.
After getting waived the next year, Peralta played for an amateur team in the Dominican Republic run by good friend Fausto Mejia. Out of pitchers one day, Mejia asked Peralta to give pitching a shot. Despite having not pitched since Little League, Peralta showed promise. A couple of months later, the Angels signed him after a tryout.
It was a rocky road. Over five minor-league seasons, Peralta rode buses while in Butte, Mont.; Boise, Idaho; Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Arkansas. He picked up 106 saves but couldn't sniff the majors. In 2002, when Peralta hurt his back and was demoted from Double A to A, he thought his career was over.
"I said, 'Man, I don't know if I'm going to make it,' " he said. "And then my brother (Frank) pushed me. He told me, 'Hey, don't quit. You're good. You're going to be something, so keep working.' I went to A ball, got healthy and took off."
When Angels reliever Francisco Rodriguez got hurt in May 2005, Peralta got his shot. He remembers getting the call in the afternoon, and in the next 24 hours, "I didn't sleep even 20 seconds. It was unbelievable, the best feeling ever."
From there, Peralta pitched for the Royals (2006-08), Rockies (2009) and Nationals (2010). Last year he went 1-0 with a 2.02 ERA over 49 innings, pitching primarily in the sixth, seventh and eighth.
But Peralta will always be grateful to the Angels for giving him a chance. Maddon, then an Angels bench coach, said he earned it.
"I remember a small guy. You're not expecting a whole lot. How could this guy, as a relief pitcher, have the stamina to pitch and the stuff to get good hitters out?" Maddon said. "And he kept proving people wrong and wrong and wrong. I definitely see the evolution of him. A lot if it has to do with self-confidence. He's a very self-confident pitcher right now. And he definitely has that sense of belonging."
The Rays have eyed Peralta for a long time. In November 2005, the day after principal owner Stuart Sternberg took over, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said they put in a waiver claim for Peralta but were second to Kansas City.
"He would have been our first move," Friedman said.
Since the Rays signed Peralta in December to a one-year contract, pitching coach Jim Hickey said he has lived up to his reputation. Peralta asked to pitch in today's controlled scrimmage.
"He's basically a workhorse. He would never say no," Hickey said. "He takes the ball every time."
Peralta would love the ball in the ninth inning but said other capable arms are in camp. Though Peralta doesn't have a dominant fastball or command, he has a really good combination of the two, along with a split-finger fastball Hickey said can be a "plus-plus pitch."
"I have been impressed with his stuff and the way he knows how to use it," Hickey said. "He knows exactly what he wants to do."
Peralta feels blessed to be here, and you can see that in the way he carries himself. He is a high-energy, happy guy who has endeared himself to teammates and coaches. And despite his long journey, he's not slowing.
"'Like with wine," Peralta said, smiling, "the older the better."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]