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Juan Perez gets big hit after learning of friend's death

St. Louis Cardinals' Oscar Taveras celebrates as he

St. Louis Cardinals' Oscar Taveras celebrates as he rounds first after hitting a home run during the seventh inning in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, in St. Louis. Photo Credit: AP / Eric Gay

SAN FRANCISCO - This was Game 5 of the World Series, the night of Juan Perez's young life, and he couldn't believe what he was hearing.

The crowd at AT&T Park was roaring for the Giants to close out their stadium for 2014 on a winning note. But all Perez heard was someone behind him talking about a car accident in the Dominican Republic. And that his close friend, Oscar Taveras, the talented 22-year-old Cardinals outfielder, was dead.

Perez, tears streaming down his face, needed proof. So he headed back up the dugout tunnel into the clubhouse and grabbed his smartphone from his locker. Twenty messages from family and friends. And when Perez scrolled through, his fears were realized.

He saw the image of Taveras' crumpled red Camaro, compressed into a stomach-turning wreck. Then the photo of a bloodied Taveras himself, lying lifeless in the morgue.

"I came up to make sure 100 percent," Perez said, his eyes still watery, after doubling home two runs in the eighth in a 5-0 win over the Royals. "When I saw my phone, I was crying."

Perez, a backup outfielder on his first playoff roster, was supposed to be doing his usual prep routine in the trainer's room, getting ready for late-inning duty, either as a pinch runner or defensive replacement for Travis Ishikawa. Instead, he was in shock, trying to focus through the tears.

When Perez got back to the dugout, Joaquin Arias saw he was shaken. "Stay strong," Arias said. "Keep your mind strong. We've got to win this game."

The message was simple. The execution was nearly impossible.

Perez had grown up with Taveras' family, played with his older brother, Juan Burgos, for the Aguilas team in the Dominican Republic. He remembered Juan coming up to him one day, with a barely teenage Oscar, and bragging about his younger brother. "He's going to be special," Juan told Perez. "He's got a lot of talent."

Two weeks earlier, Taveras talked with Perez on the field during the NLCS and later came off the bench to burn the Giants with a tying home run. It was a stunner for the Giants, but Taveras was happy for his friend.

Now Taveras was gone, and Perez was left trying to contain emotions that made playing baseball feel impossible. But Giants manager Bruce Bochy called on him to pinch run for Ishikawa in the sixth, which set up the pivotal at-bat in the eighth.

Two hours earlier, Perez was looking at his bloodied friend in the morgue. Now he was facing nearly unhittable Wade Davis with two on and one out.

Perez finished the regular season with two hits in his final 27 at-bats. He was batting .150 (3-for-20) this postseason.

After falling behind 0-and-2, Perez worked the count to 3-and-2 before crushing a 96-mph fastball. The drive seemed destined for the centerfield bleachers but nicked the top of the wall, missing the seats by inches. Two runs scored.

When the Royals' Alcides Escobar made an errant throw on the play, Perez hustled for third. He slid headfirst, then bounced up and pumped his fist as the jubilant AT&T fans went crazy.

This wasn't real. Was it?

"Sometimes things happen for a reason," said Perez, who scored on Brandon Crawford's single for a 5-0 lead. "When I went to third, I looked to the sky. I was thinking about it, too."

By then, Perez could let those feelings out. After clamping down on the tears, maybe to keep his vision clear for that Davis fastball, it was safe for them to flow again.

Maybe Perez could even allow himself to feel happy. His relationship with Taveras began with baseball. The sport they loved will continue to sustain it.

"He was a humble guy," Perez said. "Loved to play baseball. His family played baseball. He was one of the top prospects. He came up with a lot of expectations to be a huge player in the big leagues. Now he's going to be missed by a lot of people."

The Giants are one victory from establishing a new dynasty by the Bay, and Perez, an unlikely hero, played a big part on the same night he lost a close friend.

There was cause for celebration. Amid the tears.

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