Angels' bullpen keeps it interesting
Relievers hold lead to beat Royals in opener, but things were a little shaky
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Fans in Anaheim aren't going to want to make a habit of leaving the ballpark early this year. The latter innings could be rife with excitement.
Opening Day can send out all sorts of false and meaningless signals, but you can be pretty sure that the late innings of Thursday's 4-2 win over the Kansas City Royals foreshadowed the summer of 2011 in Orange County.
The Los Angeles Angels figure to lean heavily on their bullpen, an amorphous blob of talent that might shift shapes routinely as the season inches along.
It just looks like that kind of team. The Angels don't figure to blow teams out very often, because their offense lacks depth. It's doubtful they'll lose embarrassing games regularly, because most of their starting pitchers aren't going to let it happen.
Instead, the Angels' knuckles will turn various shades of white as they try to steer desperately through a game's conclusion.
Pick a reliever, put him in a role. See how he does. OK, now pick another guy, put him in another role. See what happens.
Jered Weaver did the same things Thursday he did most of last season. He barely gave up an inch to the other team and carried the ball into the seventh inning, then handed manager Mike Scioscia the ball, retreated to the clubhouse and waited to see what the knot in his stomach would do.
Next came a young veteran, Kevin Jepsen, who gave up a hit and a couple of walks before another rookie, Michael Kohn, bailed him out. Fernando Rodney made things loads of fun in the ninth, too, with a walk and a hit before he muscled up and blew away Alex Gordon with a chest-high 97-mph fastball.
This is a bullpen that figures to be filthy in all senses of the word. Torii Hunter, who had earlier hit a Bo Jackson-esque moon shot over the center-field wall here, admitted it was "a little scary" as the Royals started painting the bases blue in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
"I'm pretty sure in that situation you want to get it done," Hunter said. "You don't want any three-run jack."
Weaver got 19 outs and allowed four base runners.
The bullpen got eight outs and allowed nine base runners.
Weaver struck out six. The bullpen struck out five.
Weaver had seen the Angels' bullpen blow plenty of his leads last year. He was an All-Star and major league strikeout leader while going 13-12. Another meltdown would have been a bummer way to open 2011. It would have been a bummer for the whole team, which is looking to mix youth and experience and is still uncertain how the experiment will turn out.
"We made it interesting a little there, but those guys made pitches when they needed to and were able to get big outs when they needed to. We win." Weaver said. "That's a good way to start the season."
None of this is to suggest the Angels have a bad bullpen. It's just mysterious. As Scioscia pointed out, "If we had lost, it would have imploded. They held on." It looks to be a group of the team that needs time to settle, like a new house.
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You have to avoid misguided conclusions, of course, but on Thursday some of the team's most experienced pitchers looked the shakiest and some of its youngest looked like bulwarks. Walden and Kohn looked the coolest under pressure and that might not be a one-day thing.
Walden is pure adrenaline. Kohn is pure poise. Walden is big and tall, comes from Texas and even has a beard these days, as, apparently, all relievers now must. He said he felt as though he was ready to come into the game after one throw in the bullpen. Walden doesn't have to muster adrenaline. He has to control it.
"I really try to focus on my breathing," Walden said. "I keep breathing and it kind of keeps me calm."
Hitters can only hope he keeps breathing because nobody wants to see what a 101-mph fastball can do to the human body. Walden placed his pitches in good enough spots to strike out Wilson Betemit to end a two-on jam in the seventh inning.
Kohn, after adding to the walk parade, got two outs in a similar escape an inning later: He struck out Jeff Francoeur on an 81-mph slider at the numbers and got Alcides Escobar to hit a harmless pop-up to end it.
"Michael, he's a competitor," Walden said. "I've played with him my whole career. You want him on the mound. He wants the ball."
Scioscia says he isn't ready to commit to changing any roles after completing 1/162nd of the season, but nobody who follows the team would be stunned either to see Kohn and Walden pitching in more prestigious roles as the season progresses.
"There are a lot of big arms that can end up in the back end of our bullpen," Scioscia said.
And, boy, will it be fun and angst-y as he figures out who does.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngels.com.