SEATTLE — Much like his surging team and the improved bullpen he has become an integral part of, Angels reliever Dane De La Rosa is gathering steam.
When the well-traveled 6-foot-7, 245-pound right-hander was called up from triple-A Salt Lake in April, his fastball sat at about 92 mph. As De La Rosa gained confidence in his mechanics and array of pitches and felt a greater sense of belonging in the big leagues, his velocity increased to the 94-95-mph range.
Then on June 26, with the bases loaded and two out in the fourth inning, De La Rosa blew a 98-mph fastball by Detroit's Torii Hunter for strike three, part of a two-inning stint that earned De La Rosa the win in a 7-4 Angels victory.
Perhaps the Comerica Park radar gun was a little "hot," or inflated, but De La Rosa has regularly hit 96 and 97 mph in several stadiums over the last few weeks, an indication his velocity is no fluke.
Combined with a big-breaking curve and the durability to pitch three straight days — something he has done twice this season — De La Rosa, 30, has gone from a 10-year minor league journeyman to a bullpen fixture with the Angels, who have won 11 of 14 entering Friday night's game against the Seattle Mariners.
De La Rosa is 4-1 with a 3.24 earned-run average, 39 strikeouts and 12 walks in 41 2/3 innings, and has held opponents to a .220 batting average. He leads the team with 40 appearances despite spending the first week of the season and 10 days in early June in triple A.
"It's a mixture of a lot of things," De La Rosa said. "In 2010, I started to feel better mechanically, and every year it seems to get a little stronger. The confidence helps too. I'm building off every outing, moving it up a level. I was kind of a late bloomer. I still don't think I've hit the roof yet."
Confidence is a huge factor in the eyes of catcher Chris Iannetta, who thinks De La Rosa is in a better place mentally than he was late in March, when he was acquired from Tampa Bay.
"Early on, it seemed like he was still figuring himself out, trying to throw strikes, trying to figure out the organization," Iannetta said. "He was throwing 90-91 then, but once he started throwing strikes and gaining confidence, he took off."
His timing couldn't be better. With Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett out because of injuries, De La Rosa has helped stabilize a bullpen that was shaky in April and early May.
"There were times early in the season when we were just trying to find someone who could pitch at the back end of games," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Now, no doubt, we have more options. We can match up better. We're holding leads much better in the last 40 to 50 games."
In 44 games through May 19, Angels relievers combined to go 7-7 with a 4.47 ERA, nine saves and six blown saves. In 46 games since, they are 7-4 with a 3.30 ERA, 15 saves and only one blown save.
The dominance of closer Ernesto Frieri, the consistency of veteran left-hander Scott Downs, the return of setup man Kevin Jepsen from a shoulder strain in late May and Michael Kohn's comeback after missing 2012 because of Tommy John surgery have helped fuel the bullpen's improvement.
De La Rosa has been in the middle of it all, providing much-needed depth, occasional length and an ability to pitch out of jams.
"We have to have more depth in the setup role so we're not just relying on Kevin," Scioscia said. "That's where Dane, Downs and Kohn come in. They all can help us hold leads and get those three or four outs leading up to Ernie.
"And on days Ernie is not available, we have guys who can fill in. We need as many guys as we can get in the back of the bullpen pitching well to give us a fresh look every day that can hold leads."
De La Rosa, who attended Wildomar Elsinore High and Riverside College, has already pitched in three times as many big league games in 2013 as he did in his previous nine years of professional ball, which included four independent-league seasons.
He has plenty of incentive to stay. De La Rosa's wife, Katie, is pregnant with the couple's first child, a son, due in November. They recently purchased a home, and the mortgage is a lot easier to pay with a major league-minimum salary of $490,000 than minor league pay.
"I have a little more motivation because I'm playing for the little guy," De La Rosa said. "It's helped me push a little bit harder."