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Rookie Angels pitchers face a postseason burden

Why Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger could help determine whether the Angels can get out of the first round for the first time in four years.

September 24, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN | ON BASEBALL

The Texas Rangers officially conceded the American League West on Wednesday at 3:01 p.m. The club hit the send button on an e-mail news release entitled "2009 Texas Rangers Team and Individual Accomplishments."

The Angels cannot clinch the division for another few days, but the Rangers evidently feel they have accomplished all they can this season. Frankly, they're right.

So on to the playoffs, and to the endurance tests that can sap a starting pitcher of all his strength by the fifth or sixth inning. The Angels played one of those games Wednesday -- three hours 37 minutes, 316 pitches.

They played the New York Yankees on Wednesday. They'll play the Boston Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs. Different uniform, same approach.

That could make two rookie pitchers the two most critical players in determining whether the Angels can get out of the first round for the first time in four years.

Neither Kevin Jepsen nor Jason Bulger ever has pitched in October. If the rookies cannot handle the seventh and eighth inning with the world watching, well, see you in Tempe.

"Just because they don't have a lot of experience doesn't mean they're going to fail," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Many times, pure talent outplays experience."

Scott Kazmir threw 19 pitches in the first inning Wednesday, with one guy reaching base. He threw 19 in the sixth, same thing. He threw 24 in the fifth, without giving up a hit.

He was done after six innings, and 112 pitches. This is what the Yankees and Red Sox do: Take a pitch, foul off a pitch, take two pitches, foul off a few more. The New York and Boston offenses rank 1-2 in the league in pitches seen.

The Red Sox played 11 postseason games last year. The opposing starter completed seven innings four times. John Lackey did it once, in two tries. Kazmir did not, also in two tries.

The Red Sox played 14 postseason games the year before, en route to the World Series championship, albeit with a vibrant Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. No opposing starter completed seven innings. On average, the opposing starter did not finish the fifth.

That leaves those crucial innings in the untested hands of Jepsen and Bulger, filling right-handed roles intended for the injured Scot Shields, the ineffective Jose Arredondo and the long-gone Justin Speier.

Jepsen started so poorly this season that the Angels sent him back to the minor leagues. Bulger had shuttled between the minors and majors in each of the last four years.

Bulger has a 1.17 earned-run average since the All-Star break, with Jepsen at 1.87.

The better they pitched, the more prominent their roles became, with this caution flag: Bulger has not pitched as many innings since 2002, Jepsen since 2004.

Jepsen is so raw that the biggest game he has pitched in did not take place on this continent.

"Definitely, it would be the Olympics," he said.

In Beijing, that is, where fans express themselves with more civility and less volume than in Boston.

Jepsen closed out the bronze-medal game last September in which the United States beat Japan. The losing pitcher was Kenshin Kawakami, who subsequently signed with the Atlanta Braves for $23 million.

"It's a little different here," Jepsen said. "It's a bigger stage. But any time you get that experience, it's going to benefit you."

On the verge of October, Bulger looks back to May.

The Red Sox were here. His ERA was over 8. The game was in the 12th inning.

Bulger got into a bases-loaded mess, with one out. He struck out Dustin Pedroia, got Ortiz to ground out, and the Angels won.

"That's probably the biggest game I've pitched in," Bulger said, "with a big-name team like that, and with the game on the line."

This could be an interesting postseason, with the Angels far from the only club counting on inexperienced relievers to bridge the gap from starter to closer.

The Yankees, for all their extravagance, could rely on Phil Hughes and Phil Coke. The Red Sox, for all their wealth, could look to Daniel Bard and Ramon Ramirez.

The Angels are spending close to $117 million this season. Their fate could be decided by two rookies whose uniform numbers add up to 117.


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