SPORTS

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October 22, 2002

Profile of a Major League closer

Troy Percival is six feet, three inches tall and weighs, according to an often-politic listing, 235 pounds. Troy Percival is big. He's big, and he throws fastballs that routinely cross the plate at 97 miles per hour, which have also been clocked as high as 100 miles per hour. Throughout seven seasons in the major leagues, Percival has accumulated 250 saves, which ranks him among the 20 or so best closers in the history of baseball. Just for the record, that makes seven more saves than the great Mariano Rivera.

All things considered, though, he's probably terrified.

Sunday night, the Giants and Angels went at it in game two of the 2002 World Series in Anaheim. In many respects, it was a ludicrous and, frankly, a bad baseball game they played: both starting pitchers were gone before two innings had expired; 21 runs and 28 total hits on the board; errors on the part of each team, not withstanding more than a few borderline plays by both teams.

When the last of many dust clouds had settled over Anaheim stadium, there was an old-fashioned pressure situation in the last of the ninth. Percival was standing on the mound, a two-run cushion supporting him, peering at the only Giants hitter who even approaches him in physical stature: Barry Bonds.

Percival threw the first pitch outside. We have seen this act before. Everyone pitches Bonds outside because they have seen what he has done with the last 600 or so inside pitches—that is to say, plant them in the right-field bullpen. They have a garden at Shea Stadium, which is not dedicated to this, but should be.

There was a pause before the second pitch. I don't know if everyone saw it, but Percival had a gut check before he threw pitch number two.

Barry Bonds isn't the only professional in this ballpark. I've been a major league closer for seven years, and I can throw in the upper 90's. I can throw one pitch, this pitch, past Barry Bonds. I could walk him, but none if it is worth a thing unless I prove to myself I can throw past a legend.

Percival wound up, and threw a three-quarter-arm fastball that started on the outer middle of the plate, then rode in towards Bonds' hands. He nearly broke his neck trying to find the ball. The whole stadium did, actually. The ball was gone. The TV cameraman just swiveled his lens towards the sky and filmed it for a while, hoping the rapidly vanishing ball was still somewhere in view. It wasn't. Barry Bonds took Percival's upper-90's fastball, and turned it into a home run that would have easily smashed the clock above Wrigley Field, given the chance.

Statisticians estimate that the ball traveled 485 feet. This is only slightly more accurate than Charles K. Johnson's estimate that the earth is flat.

Meanwhile, Percival finished the side and the game by getting Benito Santiago to pop out to second. But no one remembers that. Few people outside of Anaheim see that the Angels went home with an 11-10 victory.

Percival probably did notice, and probably cares quite a bit, that the Angels are bound for PacBell Park tonight with the series even at 1-1. When all is said and done, he may have a few other things to think about.

After this season, Percival will only one year remaining on his contract. And very suddenly, he has a successor breathing hard down his neck.

Between the two of them, the only Angels pitcher who got a ground ball instead of a clock-smashing home run out of Barry Bonds was the 20-year-old phenomenon Francisco Rodriguez. He threw three perfect innings to get the win in relief of Kevin Appier and John Lackey's extremely shaky tag-team effort yielded nine runs in five innings.

Rodriguez struck out Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent on six pitches. He had four strikeouts last night, which bumped his total up to 13 in 5 2/3 innings this postseason. He was throwing every bit as fast as Troy Percival ever has, and none of his pitches left the park in any form last night.

The man Anaheim fans are calling "K-Rod" may be the Angels' closer very, very soon. Any critic worth the paper he prints on can see that K-Rod has the stuff to be an invincible pitcher. He's John Smoltz with more zip. He's Mariano Rivera with more weapons. He's Troy Percival with a longer future.

For a man who just closed out the first World Series win in Angels history, Troy Percival certainly has a lot to think about.