Monday, July 27, 2009

By Coral Marshall - Columnist

Relief pitching has been an important baseball strategy since Firpo Marberry made the position relevant in the early 20th century. And when one considers how the game has evolved, the advent of the reliever is one of the most significant changes.

When there were two man rotations relievers weren’t necessary, but as time has progressed and starting pitchers arms have become increasingly more valuable so has the role of the reliever. The numbers tell the story best; Randy Johnson leads all active players in complete games with 100, but he has pitched in a total of 613 games. The obvious conclusion is that relievers have come into play in 513 of Randy Johnson’s games — making them absolutely necessary in the modern era.

In recent years, Angels fans especially have become accustomed to the relevance of relievers, particularly because the club has boasted some of the best in the game — with a special emphasis on the position of the closer.

For 10 years, Troy Percival was a member of the Angels bullpen. Watching Percy was always a pleasure, especially during the stretch from 2001 to 2004 when he had 39, 40, 33, and 33 saves, respectively; numbers that can’t be overlooked. And his saves in the 2002 World Series were

Percy was possibly the most fun to watch when Frankie Rodriguez was setting up for him from 2002 to 2004. And after Percy left and K-Rod came into his own, he too was fun to watch — in spite of (or perhaps because of) his erratic delivery. K-Rod’s pinnacle of pitching success may not have been his 2002 World Series appearances, but his 62 save season.

Besides being great Angels closers, Frankie and Percy had something else in common: they came up with the club. They were true Angels. They helped win the first and only World Series title.

So when Frankie left, many were fans were upset, despite the fact the club signed a three-time All Star, who recorded a 30-save season in 2008, as his replacement. Brian Fuentes may have had fewer walks and more strikeouts than Frankie in 2008, but he has never had anywhere near a 62-save season, has never won a World Series and, most importantly, was coming from another team. For many Angels fans, this was a lot to swallow, along with the slow start to Fuentes first season with the Angels.

But as the season has progressed it has become clear that Fuentes deserves a spot in the hearts of the fans. Fuentes has seven more saves than Rodriguez and has allowed 14 fewer bases on balls through Sunday's game.

But numbers alone don't really tell the whole story of why Fuentes has become a real Angel. He made the All-Star Game with his league-leading 26 saves in 34 appearances. Despite not making an appearance in the game, his election by his peers and coaches is nothing to be ignored. And In the weekend series before the All-Star Game, Fuentes helped the club complete a sweep against the powerful Yankees. After an abysmal appearance by Justin Speier, Fuentes came in and made the save, getting Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez out in true Angel form.

Fuentes, now up to 30 saves after going 4-for-4 in save opportunities after the All Star Game break - has continued to make it clear he deserves his spot as the Angels closer, since he doesn’t leave much for Angels’ fans to miss. As a result, Angels' fans around the country have popped less over the counter antacid pills heading into the ninth inning when Fuentes toes the rubber.
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