Commentary

Fuentes is Angels' closer for now

Despite blowing his first save back from injury, Brian Fuentes is keeping his job

Updated: April 22, 2010, 2:00 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Had Brian Fuentes been able to pitch a clean ninth inning Wednesday, he would have been the fastest pitcher to reach 50 saves in Los Angeles Angels history.

We're talking about a ballclub that has employed Lee Smith, Troy Percival and Francisco Rodriguez; fast company to keep if you're a closer.

But instead of toasting Fuentes on Wednesday evening, Angels fans were booing him lustily. There was a smattering of cackles when he was announced, there were louder boos when Miguel Cabrera launched a game-tying home run, and the place was roaring its disapproval by the time Fuentes walked off the field after an ugly blown save in the Angels' 4-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers.

He'd come into his first game since opening night with a one-run lead and left it after touching off the biggest controversy of the young season: Should he remain the closer? And yeah, he heard those boos.

Brian Fuentes
AP Photo/Christine CotterAngels closer Brian Fuentes gave up two runs in the ninth inning for a 4-3 Detroit victory.
"I don't think anybody enjoys getting booed; it's always disappointing," Fuentes said. "They're fanatics, you know, they're fans. They'll cheer you when you're good and boo you when you're bad. That's just the way it is. It's part of the game, and I've been doing this a long time."

And if you're wondering: Nothing has changed, at least for the moment. Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he'll give Fuentes time to get his feet under him, leaving Fernando Rodney -- who was lights-out filling in while Fuentes was hurt -- to pitch the eighth inning for now.

Rodney and Kevin Jepsen were not available to pitch Wednesday due to recent heavy workloads, but Scioscia said Fuentes will remain the closer moving forward. So what if Rodney is 5-for-5 and Fuentes is 1-for-2 in save situations? Scioscia figures the sample size is too small to make any evaluations yet.

Fuentes had pitched only once since opening night, and that was in a Single-A game on a rehab assignment.

"That's not a dilemma, having somebody throwing the ball as well as Fernando is," Scioscia said. "Brian Fuentes pitched well in the one game he saved early and had a big year for us last year. Once we give this thing some time, get things settled and let guys get into some roles, we'll adjust from there. But Brian's going to be at the back end."

Fans rarely love their closer, but something about Fuentes' failures make him an easy target for Angels fans. He has yet to show dominant stuff since he landed in Southern California. Ten Angels pitchers had more strikeouts than Fuentes last year. One of them was Jose Arredondo, a guy who shuttled back and forth from Triple-A before being released.

Fuentes has yet to inspire people to believe games are over when the Angels lead late. That's because they're not, at least when he's pitching.

The last time Fuentes had surrendered a home run before Wednesday was Oct. 17, 2009. It was an outside fastball in the 11th inning that Alex Rodriguez poked over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium. Two innings later, it cost the Angels Game 2 of the ALCS, a game that might have made the difference in their reaching the World Series for the second time in their history.

Again, it's easy to forget his successes. Fuentes had two other scoreless appearances in that series, including a save in Game 5, a one-run game.

The Angels toyed with replacing him as closer in August. At the time, they didn't have any alternatives ready. Scot Shields was recovering from knee surgery. Jepsen was 24 and just gaining a foothold in the major leagues. Rodney pitched for the Tigers.

This year, the Angels have the solution to their closing problem, and he gets dressed directly across the clubhouse from Fuentes. Rodney faced 16 batters as the closer while Fuentes was on the disabled list and got 15 of them out. The other batter got a harmless single.

Fuentes throws 95 mph with a devastating changeup. Fuentes is lucky to touch 91, and his best asset is a funky sidearm delivery that works because hitters have never seen anything quite like it.

Coming off a five-game winning streak, it wasn't particularly tough for the Angels to talk about turning the page after a tough loss Wednesday. But soon those pages will grow heavy, and Rodney has the stronger arm.

Scene and heard

Brandon Wood, who had four hits in his first 40 at-bats, got rid of the scraggly beard weeks ago. On Wednesday afternoon, he got rid of the long brown locks.

Catcher Mike Napoli shaved Wood's head with clippers. The first-year third baseman said the drastic haircut had nothing to do with his early-season slump.

"I've been getting sick of it for a while," Wood said.

He retained the small soul patch of whiskers on his chin. At least Wood didn't have to pay a barber. Clubhouse haircuts are common on baseball teams.

"I haven't paid for a haircut in a year-and-a-half," Wood said.

It didn't pay off immediately. He went 0-for-3 on Wednesday night with a strikeout and is batting .093.

Line in the sand

Johnny Damon is one of the more approachable guys in baseball, but he lost his temper with umpire Dale Scott in the fifth inning after getting called out on strikes to leave the bases loaded.

Damon apparently thought the pitch was a bit inside, because he used his bat to draw a line where he thought the pitch crossed -- about five inches off the plate. The third time he did it, Scott ejected him.

'D' for effort

Bobby Abreu is not a big fan of colliding with walls. On back-to-back nights, he hit the brakes on the warning track while chasing balls that might have been catchable.

Cabrera smashed a three-run double off Matt Palmer on Tuesday night, with Abreu making scant effort near the wall. On Wednesday, Cabrera hit another slicing shot off Jered Weaver that thudded off the wall about two feet over Abreu's head, without soliciting even a courtesy leap. Cabrera scored Detroit's second run.

Quote of the day

"It obviously wasn't as you'd script it." -- Mike Scioscia.

Looking ahead

The Angels run into one of the toughest starting pitchers in baseball. The good news for them is that Justin Verlander (0-1, 6.88 ERA) hasn't quite found his groove yet this season. He had two rough starts early, then showed better stuff in his most recent start, against the Seattle Mariners. He gave up three runs in seven innings.

Joe Saunders (1-2) also was muddling along until the Angels' lefty shut out the Toronto Blue Jays for eight innings in his previous start. The Angels don't have to wait long to play the Tigers after Thursday's game. They're in Detroit starting April 30.

In an odd quirk of the schedule, the Angels play the Tigers twice before they play their second AL West series. So far, the Angels' only division games have been April 9-11 versus Oakland.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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