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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Donnelly Has Gripping Story

June 29, 2003|Ross Newhan

So, how did this happen?

How did Brendan Donnelly emerge from those 10 years of minor league tribulation to become baseball's dominant setup man, a bona-fide All-Star, whether he is on the American League team or not, and one of the most coveted Angels in trade talks that have become more urgent with the loss of Brad Fullmer?

How is it that a repertoire that failed to get Donnelly a major league opportunity until he arrived to stay with the Angels at the improbable age of 31 last season has produced a two-year run of relief pitching that Manager Mike Scioscia says is as good as he has ever seen?

There is probably more than one answer, but a lot of it, Donnelly said, comes down to the baseball he is delivering.

Or as he put it, "All those years in the minors, I probably just needed to be throwing a major league ball."

Say what?

Isn't one specification supposed to fit all? Isn't the only difference between major and minor league baseballs supposed to be the stamp?

Well, in this era of second basemen as Babe Ruth, we know that not all balls come off the Rawlings assembly line exactly the same.

What Donnelly found, when first summoned by the Angels from triple A in April of last year, was that the major league balls were generally slicker and harder and had less of a seam.

"Like a cue ball," he said, sitting at his locker.

"I remember thinking, 'How am I supposed to throw one of these and what is going to happen when I do?' "

Shazam!

Donnelly discovered that not only could he still throw a 92-mph fastball and an 86-mph split finger, but that his long dormant slider was suddenly reborn.

A pitch that he'd seldom thrown in the minors, because it was "too loopy" and not hard enough, was now harder, less loopy and had this sweet break.

All of a sudden, in fact, it was two pitches in one.

A cross between a slider and a cut fastball, it was a pitch the right-handed Donnelly could run in on left-handers (who are hitting .133 against him this year), run away from right-handers (who are hitting .189) and "even give a little tilt to."

It has been so effective in combination with his fastball and split finger that he now says, "I have two No. 1s [the fastball and slider] and a No. 2."

He also says of the slider-cutter, "Without that pitch, I'm not here."

Donnelly didn't stay in April and didn't stay in June last year.

He had to learn to pitch with it at the major league level, to incorporate the advice he was getting from closer Troy Percival and pitching coach Bud Black, and he went back to triple A after those first two stints to gain more command, to continue working with minor league instructor Mike Butcher, and wait again for the call, which he got July 13, nine days after his 31st birthday.

The results?

Well, setup men work in the shadow of the closers, but what Ron Davis was to Goose Gossage or Duane Ward was to Tom Henke or Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton were to Mariano Rivera, Donnelly has been to Percival.

"He was great last year and he's been phenomenal this year," Black said.

Consider the numbers:

Donnelly led American League relievers last year in stranding inherited runners and in first-batter efficiency, and ranked second among all pitchers with 45 or more innings by limiting opposing hitters to a .184 average. Although Francisco Rodriguez stole the postseason spotlight, Donnelly held hitters to a .152 average in 11 appearances and was pivotal in the World Series, giving up only one hit in 7 2/3 shutout innings.

This year?

Well, it's as if April followed October. He has stranded 18 of 21 inherited runners, retired 28 of 34 first batters, held hitters to a .161 average and leads the major leagues with an eye-popping earned-run average of 0.43 through 41 2/3 innings and 34 appearances.

"I take a lot of pride in minimizing damage," Donnelly said. "I take a lot of pride and put a lot of focus on retiring that first batter. Good things happen when you get that first guy."

One of the best things that could happen, and should happen, would be for Donnelly to receive an All-Star berth, the ultimate yardstick on how far and fast he has come in less than two years.

"It would be something special if it happened after, basically, just getting here," he said. "It would be the ultimate respect to be voted in by peers. I get goose bumps just thinking about it."

In the new process, players will elect most of the pitching staffs, but whether a deserving setup man can out-poll starters and closers is problematic, and some voters and hardened union members may reject Donnelly because he became a replacement player when under career duress during that ridiculous response by the owners to the players' strike of 1994-95.

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