Closing Time

Angels: Percival's angry venom has been poison to ninth-inning batters.

World Series

October 19, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif. - The anger comes from deep within, though Anaheim Angels closer Troy Percival doesn't really know how it got there.

Maybe it's his competitive fire. Maybe it's a deep-seated resentment of opposing hitters. Maybe it's something beyond any explanation.

The only thing he knows for sure is that there are two Troy Percivals - the nasty, malevolent presence that strikes fear into anyone in the batter's box and the easygoing regular guy who charms just about everyone who comes in contact with him away from the mound. "I get people who don't know me and they think I'm the meanest guy in the world," Percival said.

It's an understandable misconception, since most people only see the 33-year-old right-hander when he sprints from the bullpen to the mound and works himself into a state of controlled rage on the mound.

Shades of Al Hrabosky, the erstwhile Mad Hungarian who became the model for the over-the-top evil closer with his volatile behavior in the 1970s. OK, so maybe a slightly lighter shade.

"He was a little bit more animated than me," Percival said. "It's not an act. I don't do it on purpose. When I'm squinting in there, it's because I'm trying to see the sign."

Whatever the intent, the San Francisco Giants have to hope that they aren't looking into that glare very often during the 98th World Series, which opens tonight at Edison International Field.

The Angels have built one of baseball's most overpowering bullpens, and it all leads up to that final inning and that baleful glare. Percival converted 40 of his 44 save opportunities during the regular season and is perfect in four postseason attempts. He just needs to get angry a few more times to complete his team's unlikely drive to the world championship.

"He definitely brings some electricity to the hill," said teammate Darin Erstad, who has been known to display a little intensity himself.

Percival will be half of the World Series matchup that everybody wants to see. The main subplot of this Fall Classic is the continuing debate over the advisability of pitching to Giants superstar Barry Bonds. If it comes down to a situation where the Angels closer is facing the greatest home run hitter of his generation - raw power vs. raw power - something has got to give.

"I don't fear anybody when I go out there," Percival said. "I'm going to throw my pitches and see what happens. If you go out there with fear, you'll get beat every time."

That doesn't mean, however, that he is looking forward to seeing Bonds in a critical situation.

"I'd rather see Engelbert and Tanner come up with a three-run lead," he said, delivering an obtuse reference to a couple of characters from The Bad News Bears. "But once it happens ... heck yeah."

Percival is a walking contradiction. He is the one who keeps it loose in the bullpen in the early innings and he also is the one who has spawned the aggressive nature of the entire Angels' relief corps. He is both fun guy and fearless leader.

"He's the unquestioned leader of our bullpen," said left-handed setup man Scott Schoeneweis. "He has done a great job, both on the mound and how he handles us in the bullpen. He can't teach me certain pitches, but there is a mental side to things he definitely has helped me with."

Every setup reliever arrives on the mound with the same swagger, as if to send a message to opponents that they don't have the luxury of worrying about Percival in the ninth because they're already in deep trouble.

"It's been like that all year," Percival said. "We've tried to set the precedent that we have an aggressive bullpen. We're going to go right after people. We're not nibbling [around the edges of the strike zone]. But we're not just letting it fly. We have a good plan, too."

The Giants also have a very solid bullpen, so it would not be a big surprise if the outcome of the World Series comes down to the relative performances of Percival and hard-throwing Giants closer Robb Nen.

If Angels fans marvel at the fact that their team finally is in the Fall Classic, there are some inside the organization who wonder just what might have happened if the team had traded Percival a year or so ago.

Friction with former Angels president Tony Tavarez prompted Percival to make it known he was planning to leave when he became eligible for free agency at the end of the 2002 season. The club was rumored to be close to trading him to the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, but the situation was smoothed over and he signed a two-year extension worth $16 million.

That's when it was good to be the easygoing Troy Percival.

"When I was going through that, I really wasn't that concerned," he said. "It looked like things weren't going to work out and I was going to move on, but I'm still here and I'm very happy because this is a special team."

General manager Bill Stoneman wouldn't say much on the subject, but he acknowledged that Percival's presence in this year's bullpen was not a foregone conclusion.

"I know there was a lot of stuff that went on at the end of last season," he said, "but Troy is a local guy and it was stuff that I thought would blow over. It wound up that way and we're delighted that it did."

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