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Heat Shield

Rodriguez and Percival make the Angels' bullpen almost bulletproof

October 19, 2002|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

F-Rod? K-Rod? Secret Weapon? The world demands a nickname for the Angels' wonder child.

Jewelry Supplier? Not much of a ring to it -- sorry about the pun -- but that nickname might fit best of all. When Angel coach Alfredo Griffin watches rookie Francisco Rodriguez pitch, his mind wanders back to his days as shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays, and to his first World Series championship ring.

With a tag team of Duane Ward and Tom Henke pitching the final two innings, the Blue Jays dominated the American League East from 1989-92, a run that included three division titles and culminated in the 1992 World Series championship.

Rodriguez made his major league debut 31 days ago, but no matter. To him, a game without a strikeout is like a game without the national anthem. With him, the Angels could win the 2002 World Series.

To Griffin, Rodriguez pitching the eighth inning and Troy Percival the ninth for the Angels is every bit as fearsome as Ward pitching the eighth and Henke pitching the ninth for the Jays.

"Those guys were more experienced. Frankie is younger. But it's the same situation," Griffin said. "You've got no chance when you get to the eighth inning. You just pray you get to the seventh inning ahead, or you can turn the light off and go to sleep."

While the Blue Jays nurtured their bullpen tag team for two years before they reached the playoffs, the Angels stumbled on theirs two weeks before they got to the playoffs.

In his month in the major leagues, combining regular-season and postseason play, Rodriguez, 20, is 4-0 with a 1.15 earned-run average. In 16 innings, he has walked six and struck out 28, holding opponents to a .137 batting average.

The Angel coaches are torn in discussing Rodriguez, particularly to the exclusion of other relievers. After all, the Angel bullpen prospered without him, leading the league in saves and ERA.

Ben Weber saved four games with Percival on the disabled list in July. Al Levine, who did not make the playoff roster, saved three with Percival on the disabled list in April. Scot Shields, who has not appeared in the playoffs, did not give up a hit in his final 12 innings of relief in the regular season.

Manager Mike Scioscia insists that Weber, Brendan Donnelly and Scott Schoeneweis all could pitch in the eighth inning during the World Series. So could Rodriguez, of course.

With a 6-3 lead in Game 2 of the league championship series, Rodriguez pitched the seventh and got the first two outs in the eighth, then handed the ball to Percival. In a 1-1 tie in Game 3, Rodriguez pitched the eighth, then handed the ball to Percival. With a 2-0 lead in Game 4, Rodriguez pitched the eighth, and he would have handed the ball to Percival had the Angels not scored five runs in the bottom of the inning.

The Angels won all three games.

"It's obviously been a pleasant surprise to add a piece like that to an already very good bullpen," pitching coach Bud Black said. "I don't want to minimize the importance of all the guys in the bullpen. But Frankie makes us more physical.

"It's not a nice feeling when you're in the other dugout."

The translation for "more physical": Rodriguez can throw a 95-mph fastball by you. So can Percival, and good night.

The last time the Angels had a "more physical" setup man, Percival was the guy, in 1995. The Angels lost a one-game playoff for the division title, the closest they came to postseason play until this year.

"That was a pretty dynamic situation," bench coach Joe Maddon said. "We were really able to shorten games based on the fact we had such a physical bullpen.

"There are intangible feelings that occur."

That translation: Even a rally monkey is powerless to help the other guys.

"When we're looking at a team like that, we're saying, we want to win in seven innings," Maddon said, "because we don't want to try to come back in the eighth and ninth."

The emergence of Rodriguez enhances the entire bullpen. In Game 5 of the championship series, Scioscia removed starter Kevin Appier in the sixth and replaced him with Donnelly, a luxury made possible by Rodriguez' availability for the later innings.

Such luxury is not often made possible by a kid who was a failed starter in Class-A ball last year, a kid still shy of the legal drinking age.

"It's exciting to see Frankie in the game," Griffin said. "Usually, at that age, you can't dominate a game. You're nervous. Your mind is not clear.

"He's cold-blooded. He doesn't sweat."

This championship plan would be a grand plan, except that the Angels did not plan for this at all. In July, when they pursued hard-throwing relievers and nearly traded for Paul Shuey of the Cleveland Indians, they left Rodriguez at triple-A Salt Lake. At the beginning of September, when rosters expanded, the Angels again left Rodriguez at triple-A.

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