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Feeling the pressure

Angels' playoff hopes could hinge on a young and sometime shaky bullpen

September 09, 2011|Mike DiGiovanna

Stout relief pitching has been as much a fixture of the Angels' playoff runs over the last decade as the silver halo above the "A" in their logo.

Durable and dependable setup men such as Brendan Donnelly, Scot Shields and Darren Oliver turned it over to reliable closers such as Troy Percival and Fernando Rodriguez to lock things down.

The Angels again are in a hot September division race, trailing the Texas Rangers by 21/2 games with 19 to play, including a three-game series against the American League East-leading New York Yankees beginning Friday night at Angel Stadium.

But when Manager Mike Scioscia looks to his bullpen for big outs in these pressure-packed games, his top three options are a rookie closer who leads the league in blown saves, a veteran setup man who, as good as he's been, has never pitched in the playoffs, and a rookie sinker-ball specialist who began this season in triple A.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 10, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Angels bullpen: In the Sept. 9 Sports section, an article about the importance of the Angels' relief pitching to the team's playoff hopes gave the first name of former team closer Francisco Rodriguez as Fernando.

Is this any way to win a pennant?

It'll have to do for the Angels because General Manager Tony Reagins failed to upgrade a shaky bullpen before the July 31 and Aug. 31 trade deadlines.

"There's pressure on the whole bullpen," said Jordan Walden, a 23-year-old right-hander who has a 2.55 earned-run average and 29 saves in 55 games but has also blown nine saves since replacing Fernando Rodney as closer in early April.

"Every game, every inning, every out counts. I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully the bullpen can continue pitching well, like we have been."

Closers garner the most attention this time of year because they must nail down the final three outs, but the Angels' playoff hopes could just as easily hinge on how Scott Downs and Bobby Cassevah pitch in the final three weeks.

With Rodney essentially a lost cause, control problems relegating him to games in which the Angels trail, and veteran left-hander Hisanori Takahashi's stuff less than inspiring, Cassevah has emerged as a key short reliever.

The 26-year-old right-hander is 1-1 with a 2.81 ERA in 22 games since being called up from Salt Lake on June 13, and he has earned the trust of Scioscia, who in late August began using him in the sixth and seventh innings of games the Angels were leading.

Cassevah began his professional career as a starter, but in 16 games at rookie-league Orem, Utah, in 2008 he walked more batters (38) than he struck out (32).

"I was coming off Tommy John surgery in high school and throwing a four-seam fastball, curve and changeup," Cassevah said. "I couldn't find the strike zone."

Orem pitching coach Zeke Zimmerman taught Cassevah how to throw a sinker using a one-seam grip, and Cassevah was moved to the bullpen, where he gradually began to trust the pitch enough to "throw it down the middle and let the movement take over."

Cassevah has only 52 innings of big league experience but does not seem fazed by his more prominent role or the pennant race.

"It's still the same game, the same strike zone, no matter what the score is," he said. "Pressure or not, I'm still going to go out there and compete and give the team a chance to win."

Downs, 35, has been the one constant in the bullpen. The veteran left-hander is 6-2 with a 1.37 ERA and 22 holds in 46 innings over 52 games.

He has not given up a run in 23 innings at home. He's limited opponents to a .192 average and .287 slugging percentage and stranded 23 of 30 inherited runners. His ERA is the second-best among AL relievers with at least 30 appearances.

"It seems every year we get one guy who really puts it together and becomes a keystone of our bullpen, and this year there's no doubt it's Scott Downs," Scioscia said. "You can't argue with the way he's holding leads and getting us to the closer."

Which brings us to Walden, who is a bit of a wild card. When he's locating his 99-mph fastball and throwing off-speed pitches close enough to the strike zone for hitters to bite, Walden can be dominant.

But if he gets behind in counts and relies too often on his fastball, Walden is vulnerable no matter how hard he throws.

"I'm still learning how to pitch in the ninth inning," Walden said. "I've never been a closer. Coming in with a one-run lead in the ninth, hitters are trying to be the hero, they're looking for that one big swing, that jack. I have to be smart.

"I have to learn when to throw my slider, in what counts, where to throw it, when to use my changeup and sinker. All these things come into play."

It's been on-the-job training for Walden, who was thrust into the closer's role earlier than the Angels would have preferred.

"He's had some growing pains along the way, but after every blown save it seems like he bounces back and learns something from it," pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "He's maturing into a guy who I think we can depend on for a long time."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Enough relief?

Where the Angels' bullpen ranks among the 30 MLB teams.

*--* Batting avg. against 248 21st ERA 3.53 9th Strikeouts 275 27th Blown saves 22 5th Save pct. 61% 26th *--*

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