Commentary

Pitching on rise for Angels, MLB

The days of the home run derby are over as more games are won from the mound

Updated: August 12, 2010, 12:47 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Before Wednesday's game, Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia got pulled into a discussion on the dugout bench about the rise of pitching and the decline of power. Given a break from dissecting the failings of his team, Scioscia began to grow passionate.

It's a combination of things, Scioscia said. It's an influx of young, powerful arms to the league, an improvement in minor league coaching, a decline in the use of performance-enhancing drugs. In the end, he said, it's nice to see a little balance restored to the game he has devoted his life to.

"You need to play more baseball now instead of home run derby," Scioscia said. "I think it's a beautiful thing for our game."

Within an hour of that conversation, a baseball game broke out on the field at Angel Stadium. Had it been a game of home run derby, it would have been the most boring ever: just two, one hit by the Kansas City Royals' No. 9 hitter Yuniesky Betancourt and another by the Angels' Bobby Abreu to win the game, 2-1 in the 10th inning.

[+] EnlargeJared Weaver
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonJered Weaver's pitching continues to baffle hitters even when he's not playing his best.

The connoisseurs in a crowd of 39,093 fans at Angel Stadium got to watch two quality pitchers in their primes, in strict command of deep arsenals. That's where the "playing baseball" part comes in. The Angels scratched out a run on a couple of singles, a smart first-to-third dash by Reggie Willits and a sacrifice fly. Not exactly Jose Canseco's cup of tea.

A Cy Young award probably wasn't on the line -- and it was far from the limelight of the pennant races -- but Jered Weaver, 27, and Zack Greinke, 26, continued to remind baseball it's entering a new era. Pitching could dominate for a while.

Weaver didn't have his best fastball, but you wouldn't expect him to after 163 innings, the season gaining on mid-August. Instead, he took advantage of a hyper-aggressive Kansas City lineup by constantly changing speeds, baffling hitters with breaking pitches and mixing in a devastating changeup as the game progressed. The major league leader in strikeouts, Weaver had 11 more. He's reached double digits for strikeouts four times this season.

"Weav's stuff was OK," Scioscia said. "It wasn't as crisp as we've seen it, but I really think it was the best job he did all year of pitching."

If not for a constant array of aces that have opposed him this season, Weaver might be getting a little attention for the Cy Young. That award likely will go to David Price, who has 15 wins, or Cliff Lee, who has walked nine batters all season, or CC Sabathia, who has the New York hype machine behind him.

Weaver couldn't have a much tougher slot this year. In 25 starts, Weaver has faced Greinke twice. He also has faced Lee and Justin Verlander a couple of times apiece. He faced Felix Hernandez three times and also matched up against Chris Carpenter, Jake Peavy and Trevor Cahill. He can speak as well as anyone to what Scioscia was talking about. A lot of good young pitchers are figuring it out all at once. He answers the question as consistently as he repeats his delivery, which is impressive.

"I go out there and pitch the way I need to pitch whoever's on the other side. It doesn't matter," Weaver said. "I'm not pitching against Greinke, I'm pitching against the Royals. It's funny the way it's worked out, but that's the way it goes sometimes. It's always fun to battle the best."

Weaver didn't get the win. Angels closer Brian Fuentes did by working a perfect 10th inning to cap a three-game sweep of a pretty bad team.

It's not that the Angels can't score for Weaver. It's that the other pitcher won't let them. Greinke's not having a season like his 2009 run of dominance, when he won only 16 games pitching for a lousy team and still won the Cy Young. But he still can toy with hitters, because he can do so many things from the mound.

He struck out Hideki Matsui on a 95-mph straight fastball. He struck out Mike Napoli on a 65-mph curveball that landed on catcher Brayan Pena's mitt like a butterfly. He has pretty much every speed in between, too, notably an 87-mph changeup.

"Greinke's still nasty," Torii Hunter said. "Greinke's Greinke. When he's on, he's on. He hit 97 mph when he wanted to and used his off-speed stuff to keep us off balance."

Scene and heard

Did you notice Bobby Abreu's tiny little hop onto home plate after his game-winning home run? Did you notice Scioscia holding players back from crowding the plate in the ensuing celebration? Amazingly, Abreu's shot, off Jesse Chavez leading off the 10th, was the Angels' first "walk-off" home run since the day after Kendry Morales broke his ankle jumping on the plate.

Morales' injury came on May 29. The next day, Howie Kendrick hit a three-run blast to win a game and the Angels were careful not to mob him in the dogpile. They were still being careful two-and-a-half months later.

"We have rules on that," Abreu said.

By the numbers

Remember when Fuentes was the most vilified member of the Angels? Without getting much credit, he's been among the most consistent Angels for nearly two months.

Since June 20, Fuentes has been one of the the best closers in baseball. He has allowed one run in his past 19 innings and has slammed the door in 13 straight save chances. He pitched a perfect inning to pick up the win Wednesday, striking out two Royals.

Odds are, Fuentes won't be the Angels closer next year, but he's making a good case to be somebody's.

"His confidence is high, because his command is there," Scioscia said. "He's able to put the ball where he wants."

Quote of the day

"There's no way a player would tell you it's over unless it's Sept. 29 and you're down 10 games. Then, yeah, it's over. But right now, the fat lady, she hasn't sung yet."  Torii Hunter.

Looking ahead

The Angels have Thursday off before opening a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays at Angel Stadium. The Angels face three left-handed starters, so Matsui could see little playing time.

The pitching matchups: Scott Kazmir (8-9, 6.57 ERA) vs. Marc Rzepczynski (0-1, 7.15); Ervin Santana (11-8, 4.12) vs. Brett Cecil (9-5, 3.62); and Dan Haren (1-2, 3.00) vs. Ricky Romero (9-7, 3.53).

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.