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02/27/09 2:45 PM EST

Percival on mend, eyes mound date

Rays closer feels 'great,' says he could pitch in a game right now

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- If anybody understands it's not how you open, it's how you close, Troy Percival is the guy.

After 13 Major League seasons, Percival knows the drill.

"I understand how it goes -- especially in this job," Percival said. "When you're doing your job well, people don't really know you're doing your job well. And when you don't do it well, you're awful."

A visitor suggested that this was akin to life as an umpire, which Percival corrected to: "More like a field-goal kicker."

Last season, that take on the job particularly held true. Prior to the All-Star break, Percival went 1-0 with a 3.54 ERA and 19 saves in 29 games. After the break, the veteran closer went 1-1 with nine saves and a 6.11 ERA in 21 games.

So naturally, the latter is what Rays fans remember. Percival shrugged his shoulders when asked if he could appreciate that mentality.

"It doesn't matter to me," Percival said. "I just go out and do my job. There's nothing I can do about what happened. So I don't dwell on it. I know that I had some significant contributions for the first four months of the season. Unfortunately, I didn't get to finish out the way I wanted to. But you know what, it's a different year, and maybe I'll finish this one all the way out."

Percival, 39, is signed to a $4 million contract with Tampa Bay through the 2009 season. He had surgery in December to try to eradicate the recurring back troubles he suffered from during the second half last season. The surgery was performed in California by Dr. Robert Watkins, and it is said to have gone successfully

Despite his second-half swoon, Percival overcame three stints on the disabled list to lead the Rays with 28 saves.

Now he appears to be on schedule to pick up where he left off -- in the first half of the 2008 season. On Thursday in Tampa, Fla., he threw a bullpen session in which he used all of his pitches in a 30-pitch stint.

"Once I get all lubed up and loosened up and get out there on the mound, I'm fine. ... I feel really good when I'm on the mound."
-- Troy Percival

"[I] threw well," Percival said on Friday.

Percival is ahead of schedule and says his Spring Training debut has been moved up from March 17 to March 12.

"I can go pitch in the game right now," Percival said. "I think everybody had the idea that it would be like the last two weeks of spring before I was close to ready for that. I can pitch in a game right now. I feel great."

Rays manager Joe Maddon also is optimistic that Percival wil see game action soon.

"If everything goes well," said Maddon, "we'll get him out there by the middle of March."

"He doesn't need that many times on the mound to be ready for the season. If we could get him out there five or six times prior to the season, that would be normal for him. Anything after that would be kind of like gravy. So he's coming along well. He feels great."

While Percival pitched through pain last season, watching him compensate for injuries may have been equally painful to Rays fans. Percival often looked totally out of sync as he tried to figure out a way to manufacture a strike.

"It was a long year, mentally and physically, trying to figure out how I can possibly throw the ball up there today," Percival said. "Now all I'm working on is trying to throw the way I used to throw, which is using my midsection for torque as opposed to all arm.

"It's a totally different mechanic. Hopefully the hitters won't see the ball as well and I'll be able to command the strike zone a lot better, like I was early in the season last year. I was pretty good."

Percival, however, won't deny that Father Time is creeping up on him.

"In the morning, you've got to get everything to snap, crack and pop and then get yourself limbered up to walk to the kitchen," said Percival with a chuckle.

"But you know what. Once I get all lubed up and loosened up and get out there on the mound, I'm fine. ... I feel really good when I'm on the mound."

Percival temporarily retired due to injury, missing all of the 2006 season before returning with the Cardinals in '07. What would make someone his age -- and who has gone through so much with his body -- want to return to the Rays?

Percival wasted no time in answering that one.

"Just being around this group of guys," Percival said. "It makes me want to go out and be productive. I'm having fun playing this game again. And it had been awhile."

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