Monday, June 22, 2009

Fuentes is helping to lead the Angels back to the top of AL West

MLB: MAY 14 Red Sox at Angels

The Angels have not been themselves this year. There are many reasons, and one of the biggest has been the decline of their usually dominant bullpen. The loss of Francisco Rodriguez has obviously been a huge component. Another one of their stalwarts, Scot Shields, struggled before being lost for the season to a left knee injury. Even Jose Arrendondo, who burst onto the scene last year with 10 wins out of the bullpen and a 1.52 ERA, has struggled with a 5.55 ERA.

They do have a bright spot now: Brian Fuentes. He is leading the league in saves with 19 and a 4.24 ERA, but that does not tell the whole story. He struggled in April and was beginning to pitch consistently in May, despite a few bad outings. Entering a game on May 30th in Seattle, he had 13 saves, 2 blown saves, 2 losses and a 4.08 ERA.

The Angels were accustomed to a dominant closer and not having the worry about late-in-game situations. After all, they had Francisco Rodriguez last year, who saved 62 games last year, breaking the previous record of 57 held by Bobby Thigpen. He had dominated for them since they won the World Series in 2002 and after becoming closer in 2005. From 2005-2008, he had a 2.35 ERA and averaged 49 saves and season and leading the league 3 out of 4 years.

For Fuentes, May 30th was the moment he reverted back to his early season struggles. This was likely a critical point in the season because they were underachieving, falling behind in the division race and thought they had this game in hand. Entering the 9th inning, the Angels were leading 3-0 against the Mariners and Fuentes was brought in to close the game. He recorded two outs, and allowed two runners on. With a 1-1 count and 2 outs, Jose Lopez took him deep to tie the game up. The Mariners won the game in the 10th inning on a sacrifice fly by Yuniesky Betancourt.

The reaction from the game's starter, rookie Matt Palmer said it all: it was "deflating for the whole team", but did say as well that they have a "great closer" who he wouldn't trade for "anyone else". The loss put the Angels back 5.5 games, tied for their most of the season. Considering that their closer last year had 62 saves with a 2.24 ERA, this was likely a tense moment for both Fuentes and the Angels. Remember, he famously lost his job as closer for the Rockies to Manny Corpas in mid-2007 before the Rockies heated up and went to the World Series. A bad outing can happen to any closer, his his ERA was 6.52 after the first month of the season and that is unacceptable for the closer.

Just after that critical point, things improved dramatically. He has gone 6-6 in save opportunities with a 0.00 ERA since the game. The Angels have gone 11-7 in June (and losing tonight) and are only .5 games back in the division to the Rangers. Although several other members of the bullpen have struggled, Justin Speier has also picked things up recently too, going 2-0 in June with a 1.59 ERA. Jason Bulger also has a 2.24 since the beginning of May, so things might be rounding into place. Getting back to having a strong bullpen, the Angels' strength for so long, is one of the main reasons they are in a strong position to win the AL West this year (along with a weak division).

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