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Angels bullpen poses a lot of questions

BASEBALL

Boston has a definite advantage, at least on paper, when it comes to relief pitchers.

October 07, 2009|Mike DiGiovanna

The Angels and Boston Red Sox appear evenly matched offensively, with both teams featuring speed at the top of the lineup and patience and power from both sides of the plate throughout.

Their rotations are among the best and deepest in the game, each boasting four high-quality arms -- John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders for the Angels, and Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka for Boston.

Both teams play sound defense, though the more athletic Angels have a slight edge in game-changing playmakers.

But if there is one area in which the Red Sox hold a decided advantage in the American League division series, it's in the bullpen, where Boston goes at least six deep in high-caliber arms, many of them playoff proven.

Closer Jonathan Papelbon has a 1.85 earned-run average and 38 saves in 66 games and has not given up a run in 25 innings. One setup man, Daniel Bard, is a right-hander who throws 99 mph. Another, Billy Wagner, is a left-hander who throws 95 mph.

Crafty left-hander Hideki Okajima is 6-0 with a 3.39 ERA in 68 games, right-hander Ramon Ramirez (7-4, 2.84 ERA in 70 games) throws in the mid-90s, and right-hander Takashi Saito had a 1.08 ERA after the All-Star break.

"That," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said, "is as deep a bullpen as any I've seen."

The Angels? Their bullpen goes six deep . . . in questions.

Is Brian Fuentes good enough?

For a guy who led the major leagues with 48 saves, the left-hander seems to generate more criticism than praise. Some stems from the fact that Fuentes' fastball tops out at 90 mph, and he relies more on deception and location than most power-armed closers.

"You don't luck out and get 48 saves," veteran reliever Darren Oliver said. "I don't care how he gets those last three outs, as long as he gets them."

But the truth is, Fuentes has not been as good since the All-Star break. He had a 3.23 ERA, held batters to a .237 average and had 34 strikeouts and nine walks in the first half.

In the second half, Fuentes had a 4.81 ERA, opponents hit .274 against him, and he had more walks (15) than strikeouts (12). He also had a 6.52 ERA in 10 playoff games for Colorado in 2007, his only postseason experience.

"Tito is not going to blow you away, but he's going to make his pitches," pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "He has deception. It's hard to say he's had an unsuccessful year when he leads the league in saves."

Can Kevin Jepsen handle the heat?

The rookie right-hander can bring it -- his fastball hits 96 mph consistently -- but he has never experienced it in October, having never pitched in the playoffs.

Jepsen, who also throws a cut fastball and curve, emerged as the team's best reliever in the second half, with a 3.11 ERA, 38 strikeouts and 10 walks in 37 2/3 innings. But while holding right-handers to a .208 average, left-handers have hit .373 against him.

And he had mixed results in Fenway Park in September, giving up two runs in one loss but throwing 1 1/3 scoreless innings with two strikeouts in a tension-filled 4-3 win Sept. 17.

"The place was packed, the fans were loud -- that's as close to a playoff atmosphere as you can get," Jepsen said. "It was fun. I enjoyed it. I loved it. I can't wait to do it again."

Is Jason Bulger healthy?

The rookie right-hander was 6-1 with a 3.56 ERA in 64 games and performed well under pressure, but he left Saturday's game in Oakland because of shoulder tightness and received a cortisone injection Sunday.

The Angels probably won't decide whether to activate Bulger until the day of Game 1. If he can go, will the shoulder hinder him?

If he can't go, Jose Arredondo, who has been erratic and unreliable, or Sean O'Sullivan would be added.

Where will Ervin Santana fit in?

In a number of places, possibly. The odd man out of the rotation could fill a long-relief role as Jered Weaver did last October, when he threw the last two innings of the Angels' 5-4, 12-inning victory over Boston in Game 3.

If Bulger can't go, Santana has the stuff -- 93-mph fastball, curve, changeup -- that might play well in a seventh-inning role.

"We have some versatility with Ervin because he can do so much out of the pen, whether it's being a long man or coming into a game in the middle innings or even extra innings," Scioscia said. "And his stuff might pick up in shorter bursts."

Is Darren Oliver that good?

The numbers say so. The age-defying, 39-year-old was 5-1 with a 2.71 ERA in 63 games, and though he is not overpowering and not considered a left-handed "specialist," he has been the team's most consistent reliever.

And he won't be fazed by October pressure. Oliver has a 4.15 ERA in six playoff games, and in his first postseason game, with Texas in 1996, he gave up three runs in eight innings of a 3-2 division series loss to the New York Yankees.

"It was the first playoff game ever for the Rangers, and there was an electricity in the air," Oliver said. "I was like, 'Ho-hum.' "

Who is this Matt Palmer guy?

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