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Change of Pace by Percival Leaves Twins Crossed Up

October 10, 2002|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MINNEAPOLIS — Trevor Hoffman has the changeup that seems to come equipped with a rip chord and parachute. Robb Nen has the nasty forkball that looks like a thigh-high fastball before it nose-dives into the dirt.

And Angel closer Troy Percival has ... hmm, just what exactly was that off-speed pitch he used to strike out pinch-hitter Bobby Kielty looking with runners on first and third to snuff out an eighth-inning threat Wednesday night?

"It was a changeup, a split-fingered fastball, a forkball, whatever you want to call it," said Percival, who went on to retire the side in order in the ninth to save the Angels' 6-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins in Game 2 of the American League championship series. "It was an invented pitch, I guess.... I make it up every time."

This has been an ongoing challenge for Percival since he broke into the big leagues as a flame-throwing set-up man in 1995: What can he use as a second and third pitch to go with his 98-mph fastball?

One spring, he was determined to perfect a curveball. The next spring, it was the slider. One spring he dabbled with a split-fingered fastball. The changeup has been an ongoing project.

But whenever Percival got into a tense game situation, which is pretty much every time he pitches, he'd usually scrap all those experimental pitches and go with what he knows best: the heat.

Then one day last spring, Percival was toying around with a new pitch in the bullpen. Pitching Coach Bud Black showed him a new grip for an off-speed delivery, and Percival seemed to get more movement on it.

"It was kind of a fluke, really," Percival said. "I kept throwing it until it felt comfortable. I'd try to mix it in when we had a big enough lead to work with, and there weren't many opportunities, but I feel comfortable with it now."

Percival couldn't have picked a better spot to throw one of his better off-speed pitches of the season. Set-up man Francisco Rodriguez made a little mess of the eighth inning, walking Torii Hunter with two out and giving up a single to Doug Mientkiewicz, which moved Hunter to third.

Angel Manager Mike Scioscia took a leisurely walk to the mound, giving Percival time for a few extra warm-up pitches, and was faced with almost the exact same decision that led him to be second-guessed from coast to coast in Game 1 of the division series against the New York Yankees.

With two on and two out in the eighth inning and the Angels clinging to a 5-4 lead that night in Yankee Stadium, Scioscia declined to use Percival in the eighth. Scott Schoeneweis gave up a game-tying single to Jason Giambi and Brendan Donnelly gave up a game-winning three-run homer to Bernie Williams.

This time, Scioscia summoned his closer, the sixth time this season he has gone to Percival in the eighth.

"It was match-ups," Scioscia said. "Our preference is to keep Percy for the ninth, but Rodriguez was approaching 30 pitches, and Donnelly was out of the game. I thought the best match-up with Kielty was Percival."

Kielty fouled off several 96-mph fastballs before Percival caught him looking with an 86-mph pitch.

"I was gearing up for a fastball, and it looked like a straight changeup," Kielty said. "It was inside. If it was a strike, I would have swung at it, but [umpire Mike Everitt] was calling that pitch the whole night, so there was nothing I could do."

Percival retired A.J. Pierzynski on a grounder to short and struck out Dustan Mohr and Jacque Jones in the ninth. The right-hander has pitched 36 1/3 innings in his career without allowing an earned run to the Twins, limiting them to three singles in 34 at-bats.

"I just love throwing in this dome," Percival said. "They have one of the better mounds in the league--it really holds together well. A lot of outdoor mounds break up by the ninth inning, but this one, it's like you're pitching in the first inning when you get out there."

Though shoulder and elbow problems periodically sapped him of arm strength over the years, Percival, 33, still has one of baseball's best fastballs. It has always been his best pitch, and if he's going to get beat, he wants it to be with his best pitch.

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