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Rays must demote Percival as closer

NEW YORK — For the most part, Joe Maddon has taken all the fun out of being a critic.

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What good is it to second-guess when the first guess invariably turns out right? He doesn't sacrifice bunt, and the Rays win. He puts his faith in unproven players, and the Rays win. He smiles instead of snarls, and darned if the Rays don't win again and again and again.

Tampa Bay has played 144 games, Maddon has made a million decisions, and I'm not sure if even one of my past criticisms has any real traction today.

Which leaves me with just one option:

Try again.

Yes, this is the point in the season where it's time to suggest Maddon change the way he uses Troy Percival in the bullpen. Based on my e-mails, it's a suggestion many of you wanted to make long ago.

Few would disagree that Percival has been a train wreck since coming off the disabled list this month. And, before that, he was shaky for a good part of the summer.

So why is it that a manager in the middle of a pennant race has been so blindly insistent on using a broken-down 39-year-old in save situations?

"I don't think we can go anywhere unless he is able to do what he does," Maddon said when asked that question earlier this week. "He's got (28) saves, he's pretty much one of the big reasons we're in the position we're in. As this thing keeps getting a little bit hotter, I want him out there."

Fair enough. But the problem is we're just not seeing the same Percival who began the season with nine consecutive shutout innings and seven saves. We're not even seeing the same Percival who was 22-for-25 in save situations with a 4.80 ERA from May through August.

In four appearances this month, Percival has faced 17 hitters and allowed 10 to reach base. Seven have come around to score, and the number would have been higher if Jason Hammel hadn't come to Percival's rescue Wednesday night.

At this point, there is too much at stake for the Rays to risk even one unnecessary loss because of a problem that is not being corrected. One loss could be the difference between winning the division and settling for the wild card. One loss could be the difference between homefield advantage in the ALCS or opening on the road. One loss could, in an extreme extrapolation, ruin a magical season.

And that means Percival should not be closing.

It doesn't have to be a permanent decision. It doesn't even have to be a demotion. The Rays have used Rocco Baldelli sparingly as he has come back from his ailments, and they should do the same with Percival until he proves he can stand on the mound in the ninth inning.

Percival, Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey agree there is nothing wrong with the right-hander's arm. He is still hitting the low 90s on the radar gun, so he is capable of retiring hitters.

The problem is the rest of Percival's body. He has hamstring issues, he has a bad knee and he has a cranky back. If the legs are bothering him, he can't drive toward home plate and he loses command of his pitches. If his back is bothering him, he has a tough time bending and his mechanics get out of whack.

"My arm has always been resilient. It's just old guys, once the legs and back start going, you're going to have issues," Percival said before Wednesday's game. "So you learn how to adjust. You learn how to pitch with certain deficiencies, aches, pains, or what have you."

Every argument against Percival as the closer includes calls for Dan Wheeler or Grant Balfour to step into the role. The problem is neither has ever done the job on a full-time basis.

And, though both have been phenomenal as setup men this season, they have had their own struggles as closers. Percival is 28-for-32 in save situations, a success rate of 87.5 percent. Wheeler and Balfour have combined to go 15-for-20, a success rate of 75 percent.

That doesn't mean Wheeler or Balfour shouldn't be closing tonight, but it suggests there is more to the problem than just throwing Percival to the curb.

Essentially, Maddon believes a healthy Percival is his best hope in the ninth inning.

So, okay, let's put the onus on Percival. He likes to play the role of the tough guy, but he needs to be honest with himself and with Maddon. He said Wednesday night that his back grew stiff from repeated warmup sessions in extra innings and he knew the 14th inning would be a struggle.

Percival needs to let Maddon know that. And he needs to stop being a hothead when the manager comes to the mound. There's a fine line between being competitive and being a detriment.

The bottom line is this:

Every decision Maddon has made, whether you have agreed or disagreed, has put the team's welfare first. This decision has to be made with the same integrity in mind.

He is a loyal guy, Maddon. Loyal to his employers, loyal to his beliefs and loyal to Percival. Now, it is time for Maddon to be loyal to the other players in the Rays clubhouse.

He needs, for the time being, to take the final inning away from Percival.

Now, about those sacrifice bunts …

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

Rays must demote Percival as closer 09/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 2:57pm]
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