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Changing things up

Using all his pitches, Weaver has been almost perfect

May 01, 2011|Mike DiGiovanna

The tipoff for Jered Weaver came on his third pitch of the game Monday night, a first-pitch fastball that Oakland's Daric Barton grounded to first base for an out.

That leadoff batter Coco Crisp swung at Weaver's first two pitches, producing a fly ball to right field, was no surprise. The A's outfielder is a free swinger who through Thursday had one walk in 91 at-bats this season.

But Barton is one of baseball's most patient hitters, a guy who entered the weekend having seen a major league-leading average of 4.66 pitches per plate appearance and had walked 18 times, fifth-most in baseball.

When he took a healthy hack at Weaver's first pitch, it set off an alarm in Weaver's head.

"Barton is not a guy who swings too early in the count -- he likes to take his walks and see a lot of pitches," Weaver said. "When he came out swinging at the first pitch, I knew they were going to be aggressive, and they were pretty much that way the whole game."

Weaver likes to get ahead in the count, often with well-placed fastballs, but after Barton's at-bat, the Angels ace altered his game plan, using more off-speed pitches -- sliders, curveballs, changeups -- early in the count.

The result was a seven-hit shutout and a 5-0 victory in which the 28-year-old right-hander struck out 10, walked one, threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of 35 batters and prevented the A's from making much solid contact.

In six games entering Sunday's scheduled start in Tampa Bay, Weaver is 6-0 with a major league-leading 0.99 earned-run average and 49 strikeouts.

He has given up 26 hits in 452/3 innings and has held opponents to a .163 average.

Manager Mike Scioscia said Weaver isn't doing anything drastically differently from what he did in 2010, when Weaver went 13-12 with a 3.01 ERA and a major league-leading 233 strikeouts but suffered from a lack of offensive and defensive support.

His repertoire is the same, though one scout said Weaver's slider is a little tighter and his fastball has a little more zip, leaning closer to 93 mph than his usual 91-92 mph.

Weaver has the same deception, with his lanky 6-foot-7 frame, across-the-body delivery and late life on his fastball. His command is as it has always been -- excellent.

After refining his between-starts workout regimen, he settled on one that worked so well last season he has carried it into 2011. And his shoulder, which troubled him in 2007 and 2008, remains sound.

"To me, he's throwing the same way he's always thrown," A's second baseman Mark Ellis said. "I don't see any difference at all."

But if you're wondering why Weaver has gone from one of the top right-handers in the game to the second coming of Bob Gibson this season, look at what happened after that Barton at-bat Monday.

The A's, known for their patience and plate discipline, came out ambushing Weaver early in the count. Weaver responded by killing them softly with off-speed stuff.

Weaver knows what adjustments to make and when to make them. With experience -- this is the former Long Beach State star's sixth major league season -- has come a better grasp of opposing hitters, of how teams approach him, and of how to execute a game plan.

"I don't know if he's recognizing things more, but his instincts are as good as they've ever been," Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "He's maturing as a pitcher. He also has tremendous deception with the ability to throw four pitches for strikes in any count. It's a nice combination to have."

Weaver has always been comfortable in the spotlight, and he's growing into his role as staff ace and team leader, but he tends to squirm a bit when he feels too much of the focus is on him.

"All the accolades are great," he said Monday night, "but the team is the most important thing. It was great to get the win."

Asked the following day why his ERA resembles that of a star high school softball pitcher, Weaver went into self-deprecating mode.

"Smoke and mirrors," he said. "I'm a magician."

Opponents often wonder what Weaver has up his sleeve.

"You look up at the scoreboard and see his fastball is 91 mph, and you can't believe it," said Ellis, who is five for 32 (.156) lifetime against Weaver. "It seems like it's 95-96 mph. And he locates it really well.

"Whenever we play the Angels and we don't see him, there are not too many guys in this clubhouse who are upset about it. He's tough for us to face. He's not a comfortable at-bat, for sure."

Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick can empathize.

"It probably wouldn't be any fun facing him," Kendrick said. "He can throw every pitch for a strike. He's got two sliders, one hard, one a little slower. He has that Bugs Bunny changeup. You know he throws a lot of strikes. The tough part is trying to figure out what he's going to throw for a strike."

Weaver doesn't have an overpowering fastball by major league standards, which is why location is so huge for him.

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