ANGELS: ONE GAME FOR THE TITLE : Master Apprentice : Percival Eagerly Learns His Next Big Role in the Bullpen From Smith

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The veteran sat comfortably in a chair in front of his locker stall, a smile on his face and a cool drink in his mammoth right hand. Reporters quickly gathered around, eager for answers to their questions.

The rookie stood nearby, intently watching and listening, hoping to learn something too.

Troy Percival had seen how Lee Smith handled success. Now, it was time to find out how he dealt with failure.

The game was lost, a lead blown in the ninth inning and a long streak of saves ended, but Smith was upbeat, ready to forget the whole experience.

Percival stared across the visitor's clubhouse at The Ballpark at Arlington, Tex., as if waiting for a sign from the catcher in the late innings of a tight game. Percival simply had to catch Smith's reaction to the end of his major league record of earning a save in 19 consecutive appearances.

That 9-8 loss in June was just one game in a season-long traveling classroom for Percival, who learned his lessons well.

Watch and learn, people told Percival. If you can't pick up something worthwhile from hanging around the all-time major league saves leader, you'll never get anywhere.

"I was prepared to do it anyway, but I had about 30 people suggest that I stay on his hip," Percival said. "I especially like to watch how he handles his bad outings, how it doesn't faze him. Even more than how to approach hitters, I've learned how to approach every day."

Smith was flattered to help. Only rarely has Percival come to Smith in search of specific information. Mostly, he has watched from afar like the night in Texas.

"I've pestered a few guys in my day," Smith said, laughing. "To most guys it's a privilege to help a young guy who believes he'll help his career by asking you what you think.

"Hopefully, he won't end up in jail."

When Smith was a promising young reliever with the Chicago Cubs, he often sought Fergie Jenkins for advice.

"I really do consider it a privilege," Smith, 37, said of helping Percival, 26.

Percival came to spring training armed with a fastball regularly clocked in the mid-90 m.p.h. range. He probably could have relied only on his speed to win a few, save a few and lose a few.

But he wanted more, so he tagged along with Smith. When the wildly erratic Mitch Williams butchered his role as set-up man and was released June 17, Percival stepped in and established the hoped-for slam dunk in the late innings.

"Of all the guys who have set me up, he's the one with the best stuff," Smith said. "He's got the stuff to be a good closer some day. He's a good kid. He probably added another year to my career."

That's high praise from a man who began relieving in the majors in 1980 and went into this season with 434 saves, tops in big league history.

As the season progressed, Percival's role in the bullpen expanded and became more significant.

At first, he was merely insurance in case either Smith or Williams faltered.

Later, he became a surprisingly consistent performer, capable of bridging the gap between starters who lasted seven innings and Smith, who customarily pitches only in the ninth.

Finally, he became a rookie of the year candidate.

Going into today's one-game playoff against Seattle to break the AL West tie, Percival is 3-2 with a team-leading 1.95 ERA in 62 appearances. He pitched 1 2/3 innings in relief of Chuck Finley Sunday, preserving the Angels' 8-2 victory over Oakland that enabled them to catch Seattle.

"A guy who throws that hard can only be expected to have that kind of success," said Mike James, Percival's closest friend in the Angel bullpen.

"He throws harder than anybody I've ever caught," catcher Greg Myers said. "I know my hand hurts and swells up after I catch him."

Combine an almost unhittable heater, ongoing lessons from Smith and a healthy dose of flakiness and you can understand why Percival became such a smash.

In a bullpen stocked with veterans such as Smith, John Habyan and Bob Patterson, Percival and James formed a tag team devoted to having fun during games.

One would catch the other off guard, slug him in the chest or the leg, nothing you wouldn't see outside your average junior high school lunch room.

The veterans watched and wondered what could possibly be going through the minds of their young teammates. Smith usually napped in the clubhouse until the late innings and missed the antics of Percival and James.

"After 125 games your eyelids get heavy," James said. "I'm not saying I don't love it, but . . . "

So Percival and James kept each other in the game by not concentrating on it.

"Having him around makes it easier," Percival said of James. "It's hard to be a weirdo by yourself. I hate to be too serious in the bullpen. Half the time I don't know the score out there."

Quickly, Percival realized how that sounded, and launched into a explanation of how the score really doesn't matter. He simply has to punch out the opposing batters until it's Smith's turn to take over in the ninth.

"You have to approach it the same whether it's a 10-0 game or a 2-1 game," Percival said. "It's just my style. I hate to give up a hit no matter what the score is. I hate to give up a run no matter what the score is.

"I'm not going to fool anybody. I'm going to get outs with my fastball. If I get beat I get beat."

Said Manager Marcel Lachemann: "I don't think he has a problem going after anybody because he pretty much knows that's the game."

That's also been Smith's unwavering approach over the years too. Throw it hard and make the batters hit it. Simple but extremely effective.

Perhaps that's the greatest lesson to be learned from Smith, according to Percival.

"He's consistent," Percival said. "You always have to strive for that. Everybody's going to have a rough outing. You've got to stick with it. For me, I don't try to think until I get out on the mound. I just try to be myself. I don't take anything home with me--good or bad. I don't think about what I'm going to do when I'm in the bullpen."

After the All-Star break and before the Angels' late-season collapse, the routine was the same. Percival got the call to pitch the eighth inning. The bullpen gate opened. The fans seated nearby rose to their feet, cheering Percival's entrance to the field.

Often, the ovation was louder than when Smith strolled slowly to the mound.

"It's been nice," Percival said. "I work hard at what I do, so when I do have a bad night it's especially nice when there are a few fans that appreciate what I do."

Slowly, confidently, Percival grew accustomed to his role.

"For me, it's been exciting," he said. "It took a couple of months to get acclimated and loosen up. I've had a lot of fun up here. [Pitching so well] made it a lot easier for these guys to accept me. I'm sure that they see a lot of guys who don't stick in the majors."

If this season was any indication, Percival will be around for quite some time.

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