Rodriguez a Torchy Subject for Percival

He is trying to be the kind of mentor to Francisco Rodriguez that Lee Smith was to him, but for Troy Percival, it's a little more complicated than locating the latch to the bullpen gate.

First of all, ask the Angel closer if his mentoring means he is preparing to pass the closer's torch to his 21-year-old set-up man and he bristles.

"I'm not passing anything," Percival says. "I'm going to do my job until they run me out of town or tell me I'm not good at it anymore. Right now, I'm as on top of my game as at any time in my career."

Second, he is concerned that his efforts may be compromised by the expectations and attention being directed at Rodriguez, a postseason sensation last October.

Rodriguez is on the cover of the Sporting News and ESPN magazine. He spends four hours in a commercial shoot for Pepsi. Reporters take a number at his locker. Camera crews line the field.

Says Tim Mead, Angel vice president of communications: "There hasn't been this kind of demand on one of our young players since Jim Abbott in 1989."

Percival watches and worries.

He not only tells Rodriguez to relax, but strongly advises those pumping up the pressure and cutting into Rodriguez's schedule to relax, even though Rodriguez smiles and says, "Pressure? What pressure? There is none.

"Last year is past. Now I have to go out and prove who Frankie Rodriguez is -- to my team, fans, family and myself. I'm still young, but I'm ready. I'm 130% confident I can take what I did for six weeks last year and do it for six months, eight months, 11 months, whatever."

Percival doesn't doubt him. He has seen how Rodriguez's knee-buckling repertoire of slider, fastball and changeup boosts his bravado and competitiveness. In a World Series moment that Rodriguez says swelled his pride and self-esteem, it was style as much as stuff that prompted Barry Bonds to shake his hand and say, "I like the way you go about it, kid. Keep it going. Stay aggressive."

"Look," says Percival, "Frankie did a great job in the playoffs. If it wasn't for him, the outcome might have been different. He's only 21 and we've seen how tough and competitive he is, how he handles the pressure. I hope he goes out and throws up a zero ERA, but that's probably not going to happen.

"I mean, he's having a whole lot thrown at him, considering he hasn't pitched a full month of a regular season, and it's unrealistic to expect him to live up to all the fanfare. It's unfair to him and to the team, and it's counterproductive to his development. I'm doing everything I can to break him in and teach him how to adjust and pitch in different situations and counts, but it's pretty tough because every time he turns around, he's reading in the paper what a phenom he is.

"People need to relax, back off and give him a chance to go out and earn it. It's like Lee Smith said to me when I was getting started, 'Boy, I'm not answering any more questions about you until you go out and prove yourself.' Frankie did a lot of proving in the playoffs, but now people have to give him a chance to do it for a full season, without the expectation he's going to strike everyone out and be perfect every time."

Of course, it's only natural for Rodriguez of 2003 to be compared to the comet of 2002, to the K-Rod and the lightning rod of the playoffs.

At 20, he tied the major league record for postseason wins with five and set a record for strikeouts with 28 in 18 2/3 innings. That, after pitching only 5 2/3 innings in his September debut, striking out 13 of the 23 regular-season batters he faced, a club record-tying eight in a row at one point.

Now, when everyone wants a piece of "Frankie," when he is trying to keep his feet on the ground and get his work in against hitters who are swinging at the first fastball, hoping they can make contact and get out of there before he embarrasses them, it is as if he has turned everything and everyone else into a distant October memory. That's an amazing feat, considering it was only five months ago and there were so many who contributed to the parade, including Percival, who wasn't exactly firing blanks as he followed Rodriguez to the mound.

The closer registered seven saves in nine postseason appearances, striking out 10 in 9 2/3 innings, after having converted 40 saves in 44 regular-season opportunities.

Now, at 33, with 250 saves, Percival is in the first year of a two-year, $16-million extension, after which, he intends to evaluate his situation and possibly adopt "a one-year-at-a-time plan that would be fair to both the Angels and myself. The organization has been great to me. It would be my turn to help the organization."

Of course, when hasn't he?

Only Trevor Hoffman, Robb Nen and Mariano Rivera have more saves since 1997.

No active pitcher who has thrown at least 200 innings in his career has held opposing hitters to a lower batting average than Percival's .182.

"It was always my goal to get to the World Series," he says. "Now that I've done it, I've set my goal to doing it again. If I can pitch for three or four more years and get over the 300-save mark, that would be great. To do it while wearing just one uniform would be even more special. There's not many who have done that."

Special, indeed. None of the 16 closers who have saved 300 or more games spent their entire careers with one team. Percival could easily surpass 300 in the two years of his new contract, and tutor Smith's 400 neighborhood is possible, depending on how many speed guns and shoulder tendons Percival wears out over the next few seasons.

Meantime, when the cheering stopped and the champagne dried, Rodriguez returned to the chaos of Venezuela and Percival returned to the off-field anonymity he prefers, helping his father Richard rebuild a '64 Pontiac GTO to go with the '67 Chevy Camaro and '66 Chevelle he owns.

Percival said he savors the feel of that "good old-fashioned horsepower, the brute muscle." If that seems appropriate for a heat-throwing closer called "Bull," the Bull knows that the young setup man he is tutoring may soon yearn to be in the bullpen driver's seat, a scenario rich in potential conflict and one that could become reality when Percival's two-year contract expires, if not before.

For now, however, with all of that late-inning firepower in the bullpen, the Angels have the potential to shorten the opposition's game to seven innings, maybe fewer.

For now, the closer has his role and the setup man his, and Percival underscored that the other day when he put on a straight face and told Rodriguez, "Don't bother looking in my locker, Frankie. There's no torch."

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