Commentary

Pitching finally arrives for Angels

Kazmir and the bullpen are the latest proof that L.A.'s mound issues are turning

Updated: June 13, 2010, 4:26 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Scott Kazmir nibbled and pecked at times, but he still found his vintage fastball when he needed it. He wasn't around long, but he launched his team on the way to another win on a rollicking road trip.

Kevin Jepsen started wading into pretty deep water, with the bases loaded and the Los Angeles Dodgers' two best young hitters ready to take their hacks. He reared back and blew away Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp as if he were shooing flies.

Step by step, from the humblest of beginnings, the Los Angeles Angels' pitching staff is beginning to develop some swagger. The players kind of expected it to be here in April, but they're not turning it away now that it's finally arrived in June.

[+] EnlargeScott Kazmir
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesScott Kazmir, who has struggled this season, has won four of his past five starts.

They've stopped the Dodgers, who were trucking along, dead in their tracks: The Dodgers have hit .159 in the first two games of this series and gone 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position. There are, as usual, two sides to that story. The Angels, for their part, sense a groundswell of confidence in their rotation and the semblance of order taking shape in their bullpen.

"We definitely knew what we had," Kazmir said. "We knew it was going to turn around for us sooner or later."

This staff doesn't have electric star power -- it might not even have a leading man -- but what it can offer lately is reliability and durability. It's the Honda Civic of American League rotations. Angels starters lead the American League in innings pitched and complete games. They're seventh in ERA but climbing.

Saturday night, Kazmir reverted to some bad habits, falling behind to hitters he has no business coddling and seeing the pitches pile up by the middle innings. That turned it into a bullpen game, which a month ago would have been another way of saying "a loss."

Nowadays, the Angels have the arms for when it gets late. Jepsen made an awful mess -- walking two to load the bases -- but he has the stuff to make people forget. He blew Ethier away on a 97 mph inside fastball and got Kemp to swing at the first pitch and hit an easy grounder to third. Fernando Rodney breezed through the eighth.

Things sometimes get dicey around the ninth, but this time Brian Fuentes had a fairly routine save. He gave up a two-out double to Rafael Furcal but struck out Russell Martin on a high fastball to end the game and lock up his ninth save in 12 opportunities.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia says he has been gaining confidence in his bullpen for "some time now."

"Tonight, the fact we got four zeroes from our bullpen against a team that's playing well, hopefully that's going to give these guys some confidence moving forward," Scioscia said.

The Angels' two left-handers, Kazmir and Joe Saunders, struggled in tandem for a solid month to start the season, at times jostling to see who could put up the most crooked numbers. They both had two of the worst ERAs in the league entering May.

But lately they've helped haul this rotation back onto the tracks. For a while, Jered Weaver was pulling by himself. Then Ervin Santana joined. Joel Pineiro has been in and out of the yolk. Now, Saunders has won four of his past five decisions. Kazmir (6-5) has won four of his past five starts.

The most encouraging part of Kazmir's resurgence is that his talent is beginning to push itself back to the fore. Instead of muddling along with a mediocre fastball -- which can go a long way for a left-handed pitcher -- Kazmir has begun mixing in a slider with an occasionally devastating changeup. Suddenly, his pitching has multiple dimensions, and it's beginning to puzzle hitters.

Kazmir struck out five batters and gave up only three hits in five innings. His bugaboo, as usual, was walks. He had four Saturday.

The Angels' rotation had a 5.23 ERA on May 6. Since then, it has a 3.61 ERA in 35 starts. The Angels thought they had a dependable, deep rotation. They were right; it just took a month to get here.

There's reason to believe the Angels might be on the cusp of doing even better things. For one thing, their best defensive catcher, Jeff Mathis, is days away from coming off the disabled list.

Scioscia recently said something surprising about his bullpen, which has a 4.88 ERA, second-worst in the American League.

"This is definitely a bullpen you can go a long way with," Scioscia said.

You wouldn't have heard that a month ago.

Fast start

Rookie reliever Francisco Rodriguez has pushed everyone from below. Rodriguez has retired 24 of the first 28 batters he has faced in his so far brief major league career. By giving the Angels 8 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, he has emerged as the only reliable middle reliever they have seen all season.

Rodriguez has been phenomenal: 11 strikeouts, zero walks. Not bad for a 27-year old-who used to pitch in the Mexican summer league, a backwater of pro baseball.

"It's added a lot of depth," Scioscia said.

Comeback trail

The Angels could have more relief help later if the reclamation project known as Daniel Cabrera works out. The Angels signed the six-year veteran a few days ago in hopes of turning him into a serviceable reliever.

The first step came Saturday, when Cabrera pitched a scoreless inning of relief for Double-A Arkansas. The 29-year-old was a major prospect for the Baltimore Orioles seven years ago but never established himself as a successful starter because of major control problems.

"Of all the young pitchers that came up in the last 10 years, this guy excited everyone in Major League Baseball. He was a guy just throwing downhill at 95 with great stuff, and he competed well," Scioscia said. "Right now, if he can get back close to that, he's going to be a terrific asset to have on any major league team. He's got his work cut out for him, though."

Quote of the day

"There's a lot of chatter in the dugout. It's contagious. You go out there and want to throw up zeroes, just get guys back in the dugout and swinging the bats. The whole trip, we've just been doing out there feeling confident." -- Kazmir on the Angels' 10-3 road trip so far.

Looking ahead

Weaver (5-3, 3.20 ERA) stands a good chance of being the Angels' lone All-Star at home next month, although he could help that cause by picking up a win or two in his next few starts. Weaver has generally been pitching well but has won only once in his past six starts.

Weaver tends to pitch well at Dodger Stadium, where he has a 0.55 ERA entering Sunday's start.

The Angels have never faced the Dodgers' Carlos Monasterios (2-0, 2.70).

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

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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