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Brian Fuentes silences the boos from Angels fans

After a shaky start to the season, he has become one of baseball's most reliable closers. But he's not gloating about his turnaround.

August 12, 2010|By Mike DiGiovanna

For the first three months of the season, there would be a collective groan punctuated by boos every time the bullpen door swung open and Brian Fuentes entered a game.

You'd expect this for a visiting closer, but these were Fuentes' hometown fans, in Angel Stadium.

It wasn't just that Fuentes was ineffective, his earned-run average a bloated 6.23 on June 20 with three blown saves in his first 13 chances.

It was that style of his. With an unorthodox sidearm delivery, a less-than-imposing 90-mph fastball and a reliance on off-speed pitches and deception, Fuentes doesn't look like a closer. It didn't help that Fernando Rodney does. A former closer, Rodney filled in when Fuentes was injured in April and saved five games while throwing 96 mph.

Yet Manager Mike Scioscia stuck by Fuentes, though rarely did a series go by without him having to defend that decision.

No one is booing now.

Fuentes has been one of baseball's most reliable relievers since mid-June, allowing one earned run in 19 innings of his last 19 games, going 13 for 14 in save opportunities, lowering his ERA to 3.22 and stabilizing the back of the bullpen.

The 35-year-old left-hander has silenced his many critics, but there is no hint of "I told you so" or smug satisfaction.

"That's not a motivator for me," Fuentes said. "There is always going to be speculation that someone else can do the job better, and if there is, Mike would make the switch; I wouldn't expect him not to.

"You're always going to have critics, no matter how many games you close. You could save 20 in a row, and if you drop one you'll get booed. It doesn't matter."

Fuentes may not have the intimidating presence and swagger of the game's best closers, but in two years in Anaheim, he has developed the thick skin and short-term memory necessary for the job.

Entering Friday's game, the first in a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays, he is pretty much the same guy, with the same stuff, as he was in April, May and early June, when he was getting clobbered.

"I have no idea," Fuentes said, when asked how he made the transformation. "I could care less, really. All I know is I'm getting the job done. That's all that matters. I'm not going to analyze numbers and velocity. The bottom line is getting the job done."

Pitching coach Mike Butcher has noticed a difference in command. That, he said, is getting Fuentes into better pitcher's counts, producing weak contact and fueling a confidence that "plays a big part in his success right now."

"He's feeling good, making pitches," Butcher said. "It comes down to command, really, controlling counts, and he's doing a better job now than he was earlier in the season. He's getting a lot more mis-hits now than he was earlier."

Opponents hit .233 (20 for 86) with five home runs off Fuentes in April, May and June; they're batting .130 (six for 46) with no home runs off him in July and August.

Fuentes, 4-1 with 23 saves, has 38 strikeouts and 16 walks in 36 1/3 innings.

"I go out, and if I have something going good that day I'll throw it, and if I don't I'll try something else," Fuentes said. "Obviously, you're going to be more successful when you get ahead in counts, but I've gotten beat that way, too. Sometimes you pitch pretty poorly and pull out the save, so I try not to read too deep into things."

Fuentes saved a two-run win and a one-run win over American League West rival Texas on July 30 and Aug. 1. He saved victories over Kansas City on Monday and Tuesday and pitched a scoreless 10th inning to gain the win Wednesday against the Royals, 2-1.

"It's huge from a strategic standpoint to have your seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning guys throwing well," Scioscia said, referring to Kevin Jepsen, Rodney and Fuentes. "The ability to shorten the game is there if you need it, and we have the last few games."

The question heading into this winter will be whether Fuentes, who went 1-5 with a 3.93 ERA and a major league-leading 48 saves last season, can lengthen his Angels career. He is in the final year of a two-year, $17.5-million deal that includes a $9-million option for 2011 that will vest if he finishes 55 games this season.

Fuentes has finished 31, though with 46 games left in the season, 55 seems out of reach. But if he continues to pitch as well over the final six weeks, the Angels could look to re-sign him under a new contract.

"I don't think that far ahead — I just worry about today," Fuentes said. "That's always been my approach, whether I was a rookie trying to make the team, going into an arbitration year, or whether there was a question of what role I was going to play.

"It's all speculation, and there's no point speculating on what is going to happen when nothing is guaranteed. All that stuff takes care of itself if I pitch the way I can. … Right now I've got the blinders on, and I'm moving forward."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.

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