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Struggles have made Angels' Kevin Jepsen stronger

Being demoted to the minors last spring was hardly the biggest setback he has endured in his career. Now he has pitched himself into the setup role in the Angels' bullpen.

September 25, 2009|Kevin Baxter

Kevin Jepsen could feel his season, if not his career, slipping away.

Four poor appearances out of the Angels' bullpen had earned him a demotion to triple-A Salt Lake, where he was hit even harder. His coaches and teammates were running out of words of encouragement. So was his fiancee.

So Jepsen turned to the one guy who had always been there for him -- the one who had taught him the game, bandaged his bruises and fanned his competitive fire so many times.

Jepsen turned to his father, Randy, if only in heart and mind -- Randy Jepsen died nearly six years ago.

"Sometimes I'll sit there when I'm alone and thoughts will pop in. And I'll sit there and I'll talk to him," Jepsen says.

Jepsen didn't share what his father told him, but whatever it was worked. Since July 1, a newly confident Jepsen has pitched himself into the setup role in the Angels' bullpen, holding opponents scoreless in 29 of his last 36 appearances.

That has bolstered what was a glaring weakness for the soon-to-be-crowned American League West champions.

"He's not intimidated by any situation," Manager Mike Scioscia says. "He's acclimated himself to what his talent can do and he's very comfortable with it."

And nobody, Jepsen says, would have enjoyed seeing that more than his father.

"When I first got drafted by the Angels, he was probably just as excited, if not more, than I was," the pitcher says.

That's because Jepsen, born in the shadow of Angel Stadium, grew up in a family of Angels fans. "We were Angel fans when the team was in L.A.," says Jepsen's grandmother, Judy Freeland.

Not only fans but members of the team's extended family: Randy worked his way through college as a parking lot attendant at then-Anaheim Stadium, where Judy sold parking lot tickets and her daughter Susan worked as an usher.

By the time Jepsen was born, they had left those jobs. And by the time he was 4, they had left Anaheim as well, eventually settling in and around Reno. But Jepsen was reminded of his father's allegiances at the end of his senior year in high school when he was passed over in the first round of the draft, slicing as much as $300,000 off his signing bonus.

"I remember him saying, 'It's all right. Now the Angels have a chance to pick you up,' " Jepsen, a second-round selection, says with a smile.

And when they did, Randy Jepsen came to Tempe to see his boy pitch in the Arizona Summer League. The next spring, when Jepsen was promoted to Class-A Cedar Rapids, Randy Jepsen drove his son's truck to Iowa and stayed for a week.

He didn't get a chance to see his son's third season. That winter Randy and daughter Rochelle, then 14, were riding an all-terrain vehicle through the Nevada desert when the vehicle began to flip over. Randy wrestled with the ATV long enough for Rochelle to scamper out of the way, but he couldn't keep it from landing on top of him, breaking a vertebra and severing his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed.

Five weeks later, Randy Jepsen died at a Reno hospital. He was 44.

"It was huge. One of the toughest things I've ever had to deal with," Kevin Jepsen says now. "Still, I look back and it doesn't feel like it was that long ago."

The following off-season Jepsen underwent shoulder surgery and the two blows, only a year apart, robbed him of his love for the game, he says.

"His dad was everything for him," says Jepsen's mother, Kim. "I was worried about him. It seemed like he was giving up. He wasn't into it as much.

"I told him, 'Hang in there. That's what your dad would have wanted.' "

He did, and by 2008 things were moving quickly.

Jepsen, who had reinvented himself as a hard-throwing reliever, started in double A but ended the summer in Beijing as a member of the bronze-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team. That earned him a September trial with the Angels and a spot on their postseason squad. By this spring, he was on the opening-day roster.

Then three days into the new season, just when things seemed to be falling into place, teammate Nick Adenhart was killed, along with two others, when the car in which they were riding was struck by an alleged drunk driver.

For Jepsen, Adenhart's death opened old wounds.

"Any time you lose somebody that's close to you, you share memories with and hung out [with], it's like he's your brother," Jepsen says. "It's tough losing somebody like that."

Things would soon get tough on the field. Less than two weeks after his teammate's death, Jepsen went on the disabled list because of a strained back. And when he returned, he was optioned to the minors.

"I just kept telling myself, 'This is just for the time being . . . you'll be back,' " he says. "If I [said] 'I'm going to be down here for the rest of the year, we'll get them next year,' I would have already cashed in my season. You can't hope for anything else, because mentally I've already given up. I didn't want to do that."

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