Ryan Howard, a left-handed slugger who has averaged 51 home runs and 143 runs batted in for three seasons, was so baffled by reliever Brian Fuentes in 2007 that after whiffing twice against the left-hander, the Philadelphia star said that if he ever faced Fuentes again, he "would go up there right-handed."
That's the kind of vertiginous sensation the new Angels closer can cause for batters, especially left-handers, who have hit .215 with 10 homers in 532 plate appearances against Fuentes in seven seasons.
But it's not as if right-handers tee off on Fuentes, the former Colorado standout who signed a two-year, $17.5-million deal with the Angels on Dec. 31 to replace the departed Francisco Rodriguez.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Fuentes has held right-handers to a .225 average with 31 homers in 1,260 plate appearances.
Fuentes, 33, has an unorthodox sidearm, short-arm delivery that resembles a forehand Frisbee flip and creates an illusion that the ball is coming out of his jersey instead of his hand. The funky motion makes Fuentes' 91-mph fastball seem quicker to batters.
"It's the deceptiveness," Fuentes said by phone from his home in Merced, Calif. "I've never faced myself. I just know from the few hitters I've talked to that it's harder for guys to pick up [the ball] early. I don't question it. I just go with it."
Fuentes, nicknamed "T-Rex" after the dinosaur with the short, flipper-like arms, has gone with this delivery since 2000, when coaches in the Seattle organization suggested an overhaul.
In his fifth minor league season and second at double-A New Haven, Conn., Fuentes was a struggling starter who, with a traditional over-the-top delivery, had good stuff but spotty command. Pat Rice, then Seattle's minor league pitching coordinator, approached Fuentes with a radical idea.
"They told me to drop my arm angle down, to throw submarine style," Fuentes said. "They told me to throw that way in my next game. They didn't care about results. They wanted to see what happens."
Fuentes can't remember the opponent that game, but he remembers the first inning vividly. He struck out the side.
"I came off the field with a big smile, and [the coaches] were laughing in the dugout," Fuentes said. "I went from there."
The Mariners converted Fuentes to a reliever in 2001, and after a trade to Colorado, Fuentes split 2002 between triple A and the big leagues. He solidified a spot in the Rockies' bullpen in 2003.
Fuentes has a career 3.41 earned-run average and 115 saves and is coming off a 2008 season in which he was 1-5 with a career-low 2.73 ERA and 30 saves, including a second half in which he converted 16 of 16 saves and had a 1.75 ERA.
Would Fuentes have developed into one of the game's most effective left-handed relievers if not for that drastic alteration?
"I don't know if I would have figured it out," Fuentes said. "You hope I would have, but you never know."
The one drawback to his delivery is it requires a lot of side work to maintain his rhythm and release point.
Fuentes can get a little out of whack at times, as he did in 2007, when he blew four saves in the last week of June and lost the closer job to Manny Corpas.
Fuentes was told the switch was temporary, but the Rockies went on a torrid September run and made it to the World Series, where they were swept by Boston.
"They wanted me to take a little break, and when I came back, it was with the understanding I would get my job back if I pitched well," said Fuentes, who was 3-5 with a 3.08 ERA and 20 saves in 2007.
"It didn't work out that way, but we had a great year, went to the World Series. I learned I can only control how I pitch; all those other things don't matter. I got stronger because of it."
Fuentes regained his closing job last April, and while he thrived, the Rockies slipped to 74-88, 10 games behind the Dodgers.
Once he became a free agent, Fuentes set his sights on the Angels, who were perennial contenders closer to home. He waited patiently for the Mark Teixeira saga to play out, knowing the Angels would pursue him only if they failed to land the slugger.
Teixeira signed with the New York Yankees before Christmas, and the Angels pounced on Fuentes, whose contract includes a $9-million option for 2011 that will vest if Fuentes finishes 55 games in 2010.
"For me, it was their track record of winning year in and year out -- that's enticing," Fuentes said. "When you first get to the big leagues, you're willing to play for anybody.
"But after being around a bit and going to the World Series, there's really something to being on a team you know has a chance to win. Anaheim definitely has that."
Fuentes has a tough act to follow. Rodriguez amassed 208 saves in four seasons as Angels closer, including a major league-record 62 in 2008 before signing with the New York Mets in December.
"Frankie had an unbelievable string of success, but that's water under the bridge," said Fuentes, who will pitch for the U.S. in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.
"I don't compare myself to other people. I don't even worry about that type of stuff. All that matters to me is winning and knocking down saves when I get the chance."
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Fuentes at a glance
Brian Fuentes, 33, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound left-hander, has held right-handers to a .225 average and 31 home runs in 1,260 plate appearances. He spent the last seven seasons with the Colorado Rockies.