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Angels' Percival Making the Most of Limited Role

April 21, 1996|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — He knows the end is near, but it doesn't trouble him. Angel reliever Troy Percival is perfectly willing to yield the closer's role to Lee Smith.

It's an easy call for Percival, who makes no bones about stepping aside when Smith is healthy and ready to pitch again.

The strange part is that Percival could be--no, probably is--among the top closers in the major leagues.

But he figures his time will come to shine in the marquee role. In a way, it has already happened.

With Smith on the disabled list because of swelling on his surgically-repaired right knee, Percival has been a slam dunk in the late innings.

He did it again Saturday night at Anaheim Stadium.

Leading the Detroit Tigers, 2-1, going into the ninth, Angel Manager Marcel Lachemann put in a call for Percival.

Percival struck out an overmatched Mark Lewis, got Tim Hyers to fly out, then gave up a single to pinch-hitter Melvin Nieves. He shrugged that off, retiring pinch-hitter Eddie Williams on a weak pop up to end the game.

One inning, one hit and one strikeout in 15 pitches translated into Percival's fifth save, tops in the American League.

In seven appearances, Percival has yet to give up a run. He has eight strikeouts and has given up one walk and six hits in seven standout innings.

"I'm enjoying it," Percival said of his temp job. "It's a little different. Whatever way I can help the team . . . I'm happiest when we win."

But how will he deal with Smith's return?

With a shrug and a smile, it appears.

"I'm fully prepared for that," Percival said. "The man went on the DL to get well. I'm just waiting until he gets healthy."

Smith is Percival's mentor, for lack of a better word. Percival studied Smith's every move as a rookie last year en route to a team-best 1.95 earned-run average. Smith, 38, is the all-time saves leader with 471. Percival has eight.

"He's still got time to get 500 saves," Percival said.

When Smith is back in the fold, Lachemann figures the Angels will at last have the bullpen depth that carried them to 11-game lead in the AL West last summer.

With Smith as closer, Percival as set-up man and Mike James handling the seventh inning, the Angels have a formidable trio in the bullpen.

"When you don't have the depth that's when you realize how much you miss it," Lachemann said.

That's not to say the bullpen has dropped the ball. James and Percival have formed a solid tandem in the season's first three weeks.

"I can see how Lee felt with me setting him up last year," Percival said. "If it was a one-run lead, I gave it to Lee. It's the same with Jesse [James] and me. It gives you a great deal of confidence."

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