Percival back where he wants to be

Percival back where he wants to be

ST. PETERSBURG -- Troy Percival and Joe Maddon go way back, back to when both were with the Angels organization and Percival still wore the tools of ignorance.

"I'm basically responsible for making him into a pitcher, because I couldn't teach him how to hit," Maddon said.

The Rays manager explained how he was a hitting coach for the Angels in the instructional league when Percival became a project.

"I was kind of optimistic," Maddon said. "I'm like, 'I'll get him and I'll make him into a hitter.' I finally got him into the batting cage, and I had all kinds of contraptions to try and shorten his swing, to help the ball come off his bat. He was one of those guys, when he hit the ball, it would kind of stop and kind of roll up toward the label of the bat a little bit. ... Turns out he was just a bad hitter."

Percival had shown a powerful arm from behind the plate, so they told him to take the mound but offered no instruction. They just wanted him to throw the ball and see what he could do.

Percival can still recall the day he took the mound.

"I remember it was really early in the morning," Percival said, "and by the time I was done, there were like 40 guys standing behind me."

A decision was made and Percival was told to turn in his catching gear. Percival's heart told him to stay behind the plate, his head told him otherwise.

"I loved catching, I really did -- [no other position] is quite the same," Percival said. "But it just got to the point that I was so frustrated at the plate. And I knew my best asset was my arm. So I figured this is my best opportunity to get where I want to go."

The rest, as they say, is history. And now, 324 career saves later, Percival, 38, will begin his tenure as the Rays' closer.

In November, the Rays signed the veteran to a deal worth $8 million over two years to become the team's closer.

Percival's career appeared over last summer when he rejected a Minor League contract from the Angels. But later he accepted a similar deal with the Cardinals, and quickly made the big league roster before finishing 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 34 games.

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Before signing with the Cardinals, the right-hander had not pitched professionally since injuring his right forearm in July 2005. He attempted a comeback with the Tigers the next season, but he never saw the mound. Percival went as far as to sign a contract to coach with the Angels the following year.

Percival is 12th on the all-time saves list, but he hasn't earned a save in nearly two and a half years. That should change if he remains healthy this season. Adding him has allowed the Rays to move last year's closer, Al Reyes, who had 26 saves in 2007, to a setup role, which adds depth to late-inning situations.

Percival is a different pitcher these days, though he doesn't feel he has a completely different style.

"I've located better," Percival said. "I have to move hitters more. I don't try to strike people out from the first pitch on anymore. You're going to see more situational pitching than what you've seen.

"In year's past, it was [all or nothing] and 'I'm going to try and strike you out.' And if it gets you in trouble, it gets you in trouble. Now it's a little smarter approach. But I still have the ability to strike people out if I need it."

While Percival enjoyed playing catcher, he said there is no greater feeling than pitching the ninth inning.

"Closing, for me, it's in my blood," Percival said. "It's all I've ever known."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.