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A Sound Percival Turns It Around in a Hurry

ON BASEBALL

May 06, 2001|ROSS NEWHAN

The stability of his shoulder and elbow are measured again by the 95 mph and up on the speed guns, the break of his curveball.

Not since he was a 1994 rookie, Angel closer Troy Percival says, has he felt healthier or stronger.

The man they call Bull is blowing hitters away with his fastball, freezing them with his curve.

A year ago, plagued by physical problems, he weighed early retirement. Now 31, his heater an alternative energy source registering 100 mph recently in Seattle, Percival is thinking onward and upward--scaling the saves ladder.

"The last couple years were a real struggle for me," he said. "Now that I'm healthy, I'd like to get a chance at another 200 saves. I'd like to pitch another five years at a level I'm accustomed to, and I think it's a definite possibility."

Percival has converted all seven of his save chances this season, improving his club record to 178.

Two hundred more would put him fourth on the all-time list, behind Lee Smith, 478, John Franco, 421, and Dennis Eckersley, 390.

Of the 13 pitchers who have registered 300 saves, only Franco and Doug Jones, 303, remain active--neither in a closer capacity.

Among those with a shot at 300, only Trevor Hoffman, who began the season with 271, and Roberto Hernandez, 266, have realistic chances this year.

Percival, of course, generates pure power in the mold of Smith, Randy Myers, 347, and Goose Gossage, 310. He doesn't throw the split-finger that Bruce Sutter pioneered as the first to reach 300 saves or the slop of Jones. He doesn't have the pinpoint control of Eckersley, although his ability to hit spots has improved considerably.

As Manager Mike Scioscia noted, "Percy is past the point of being a thrower. He's a pitcher. You don't often see a guy who throws that hard hit his spots as well as he does."

Still, a power pitcher tends to put more stress on his shoulder and arm, particularly when he doesn't know how to say no.

"Percy's mentality is such that he'll go out there even if his arm is falling off," Scioscia said. "He's confident he can get it done under any circumstances, but that's led to some of his problems.

"It's a great attitude to have in that role, but it breeds a lot of responsibility on us in controlling that side of it. We want to make sure this guy is around for a long time."

The Bull and others had concerns last year when, still not 100% after winter shoulder surgery and plagued by an elbow nerve problem in the second half, he had a career-high 4.50 earned-run average and blew 10 of 42 save chances.

"Coming into this year I was still very unsure of what it would be," Percival said. "If I was still going to be in the same amount of pain and ineffectiveness, I was probably going to retire.

"It's hard to go home every day being in a bad mood, never feeling good, coming back to the park knowing you pretty much don't have a chance to get good hitters out. I was proud to battle through the year, but I didn't want to do that to my teammates, my family or myself again. Now I'm pitching pain free and have renewed enthusiasm to do my job."

Percival worked diligently with a strength coach, Tom Wilson, during the off-season and also followed a diet designed to lower his body fat and raise his fluid level, learning he was dangerously close to dehydration. He substituted distilled water for caffeinated drinks, on which he had long relied, went heavy on vegetables, ate as often as six times a day, and employed supplements such as flax seed and safflower oil, working with biochemist Rob Crandall.

"No one can throw the pitches for you, but you can put yourself in better physical and mental condition to make them," said Percival, having given up only two hits in 9 1/3 innings while striking out 10. How far his renewal takes him up the saves ladder depends, to an extent, on considerations beyond his control.

His team has to be good enough to give him games to be saved. He has to pitch for a manager--and Percival credits Scioscia with being the best in Anaheim since Marcel Lachemann--who doesn't waste his bullets by asking him to warm up without being used or by seldom pitching him for more than an inning. He also, of course, has to be durable. Smith, for example, pitched 18 seasons and was a mentor to Percival in 1995, when Smith, at 37, had enough left to save 37 games for the Angels.

At this point, Percival can only take it a game at a time. He is being paid $3.4 million this season, and the Angels have a $5.25-million option on next season. He is undervalued, compared to Hoffman, Mariano Rivera or Robb Nen, but a younger Percival opted for multiyear security and says, "Once you put your John Hancock on the line, you play for that. That's the way I was raised. I don't think too many people care to hear a guy making a few million a year complain about it."

The vital role of the closer can be measured in dollars and sense, but not always by Hall of Fame voters. Rollie Fingers, with 341 saves, is in, but Gossage, Sutter and Jeff Reardon, 367 saves, aren't. Reardon, in fact, didn't receive enough votes in his first year of eligibility to stay on the ballot. Smith isn't eligible yet, but Percival said the save totals of Smith and Franco are "first ballot stuff" and if 500 home runs translates to automatic election, 300 saves should as well.

"There's less guys with 300 saves than with 500 home runs," he said. "Pitchers just don't tend to last that long. To get 400 saves, like Smith and Franco, you not only have to be good but you have to be good for a long time."

For Percival, for now, it's enough to be ranked in an elite group with Hoffman, Rivera and Nen. "After last year, I didn't see myself in that classification," he said. "I hope to be back there by the end of this year."

The speed guns indicate he's traveling a fast road.

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