PORT CHARLOTTE — They really don't know.
Troy Percival can say there's "no doubt" in his mind. Head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield can be "pretty adamant" about it. And manager Joe Maddon can cautiously optimistically predict "it may happen."
But it's how Percival pitches, and how he feels after his eight exhibition appearances (starting this afternoon against the Phillies) that will determine whether he truly is ready to resume closer duties by the Rays' April 6 opener.
What they do know is how much difference a healthy and effective Percival can make.
"Having him back like that would be fabulous for us," Maddon said.
When Percival was in the bullpen last season, the Rays had a formula that rarely failed, as he converted 28 of his 32 (88 percent) save situations, and Maddon was able to use the other relievers in semi-specific roles to get the game to Percival.
"It's very big, obviously, when you've got that guy at the end like that," Maddon said. "It pushes everyone to different slots and it gives a little bit more symmetry to the game, to the bullpen, as it's in progress. … Knowing you're building to one guy is always a little bit better thought, an easier thought."
Without Percival, Maddon had to think more, piecing things together on a nightly basis, scrambling roles and responsibilities, and it didn't work as well, as eight other Rays converted only 24 of 36 (67 percent) save opportunities.
"When you have a guy like that who's been there, done that, over 350 saves, he's closed out Game 7 of the World Series, you can't replace that kind of experience," said Dan Wheeler, who assumed most of the Percival's duties.
"I'm very proud of the way we handled the situation, but when you have a guy down there like that, it just shortens the game. You know, 'Okay, he's got the ninth no matter what, we'll take care of the rest.' … An anchor like that was missed."
Percival, 39, was on the disabled list three times and further sidelined by back stiffness, then left off the postseason roster and went home. As much as it hurt to miss October, he knew, since he was at 75 percent at best, it was the right thing to do: "There was no animosity at all. … I would have loved to have been there, but I don't think I could have helped the team."
But now, in the second year of his two-year, $8 million contract, ranking eighth on the all-time saves list at 352 (and 38 shy of the top five), he is determined to make sure it doesn't happen again.
The 5½ hours of December back surgery and months of rehab have him feeling better. He is "physically capable" to be more active than he has been in years, as he now can ride the exercise bike and use the treadmill and elliptical machine. As much as Maddon likes to poke fun, all the Rays have been impressed with how hard Percival has been working to get into better shape. He's also of clearer mind, as the divorce he was "dealing with all of last year" is resolved.
"I'm absolutely driven," Percival said. "I'm in there doing a minimum of 40 minutes of cardio a day. I'm doing weights. That's the only reason I'm doing it. Whether this will be my last year or if I'm going to play more, I want it to be a productive year and help this team get back to where we were."
"His work ethic has been unbelievable this year," Wheeler said. "He wants to prove he can do it. I think it really ate at him last year not staying healthy, and he wants to finish up the year on the positive side."
The Rays will have a better idea at least of how he will start over the next couple of weeks, as Percival is scheduled for an inning every three days or so. He says his velocity has been consistently in the low 90s during bullpen and batting practice sessions, and he's focusing on command of his off-speed pitches, with the next challenge "facing hitters with full adrenaline." He acknowledges he's "still going to be a work in progress" but predicts he should be full throttle after three or four appearances.
"I've got to keep taking steps," he said.
Big ones for all the Rays.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.