CLEVELAND - It started out as a batting cage reunion. But it seemed to turn into a mutual admiration society among fellow Dominican ballplayers when Jhonny Peralta of the Cleveland Indians exchanged pleasantries with Julio Lugo and David Ortiz of the Red Sox before Game 5 of the American League Championship Series last night at Jacobs Field.
Wielding a black model X bat, Peralta sauntered over to the first base side of the cage, where he was hugged first by Ortiz, then by Lugo, who quickly relieved Peralta of his lumber to inspect it.
They were soon joined by a smiling Manny Ramírez, who greeted Peralta with a high-five.
Lugo handed Peralta's bat to Ramírez, presumably so he could admire the bat that has produced as many big hits as his own in this best-of-seven series, most notably the three-run homers Peralta hit in Games 2 and 4.
Both were timely hits. The first enabled the Indians to take a 4-3 lead in the fourth inning of the 13-6 Game 2 triumph at Fenway Park last Saturday. The second, in the 7-3 Game 4 decision Tuesday, gave Cleveland a 6-0 cushion in the fifth inning and provided the buffer the Indians needed to withstand consecutive homers by Kevin Youkilis, Ortiz, and Ramírez in the sixth.
Ramírez examined the bat to see if it was corked, gave his approval with a nod, then handed it back to Peralta.
"They tried to see what kind of bat I use," Peralta said as he stood in the Indians' dugout. "But they know . . . it's nothing illegal. Manny was just trying to be funny."
Peralta could afford to engage the opposition in some jocularity. His team, after all, was one win away from clinching a berth in the World Series.
Peralta's offensive production was a huge reason the Indians were able to rebound from a Game 1 setback to reel off three consecutive wins. In the first four games, Peralta was hitting .353 with a team-leading six hits (in 17 at-bats), seven RBIs, and 14 total bases. In the postseason overall, Peralta was hitting .406 and led the team with 13 hits, 24 total bases, 9 RBIs, and 2 homers.
"Yeah, I feel strong," Peralta said. "My legs are strong and I see the ball good. I see everything."
Of course he sees everything - now. Since undergoing Lasik surgery in January, which helped him correct a problem spotting breaking pitches last season, Peralta has benefited from 20/20 vision, hitting .270 this season with 21 homers and 72 RBIs.
"I didn't see breaking balls too well, and I tried to use contacts," Peralta said. "But the contacts bothered me when I put them in my eyes, and so I decided to get the Lasik surgery."
His poor vision led to a dip in his production, his average going from .292 in 2005 to .257 in 2006.
"I think what Jhonny went through last year was just a full force in regard to adjustments that the league was making to him and what he needed to do to respond to that," said manager Eric Wedge. "People talk about what he did in the offseason, you're exactly right, it started during last season."
Hitting sixth in Wedge's batting order, Peralta is not only seeing more pitches to hit, "I'm seeing more guys on base," he said.
Within a couple of weeks after recovering from surgery, Peralta said he could see a difference. Wedge, too, noted a marked improvement in Peralta's ability to pick up breaking pitches.
"There were so many things he's done and worked on," Wedge said. "I'm as proud of him as anybody because he caught a lot of flak last year, and I think that for him to go after his game in different areas like he did, I think that's the greatest difference-maker.
Pausing to chuckle, Wedge added, "But I am smart enough to say that if you can see the ball a little bit better, it's probably going to help you. So, I'm sure that's at least a small part of it."