It's getting late earlier for Donnelly

It's getting late earlier for Donnelly

ANAHEIM -- His new role may be working well for the Angels but it may not be the best for Brendan Donnelly.

Once the club's eighth-inning ace, Donnelly has fallen back in the depth chart and is now handling middle-relief chores, entering games when the team is behind instead of being asked to protect a lead.

There is no less honor in pitching from two runs down as opposed to one up; both situations are winnable. But in the subset of baseball that is relief pitching, taking the mound with a dose of adrenaline coursing at full throttle is part of the attraction -- if not the high.

"Every guy wants to be pitching with the game on the line," Donnelly said.

Like a basketball team overloaded with shooters, though, the Angels have a bullpen literally saturated with back-end talent: pitchers you wouldn't give second thought to handing the ball over to in the late innings.

Starting with the closer and moving backward, the Angels have the luxury of shortening games to six innings and even five in some cases.

Francisco Rodriguez handles the ninth and has proven to be a capable successor to Troy Percival in the role. He converted 45 out of 50 save opportunities last season, his first full year in that particular job, and finished the year with 18 straight. Rodriguez has opened this season with four straight and is now the holder of the franchise record, eclipsing Percival's 20 consecutive in the 2003 season.

The primary eighth-inning man is Scot Shields, who has the stamina if not the stuff to close. The right-hander has also started in his career and would take the ball every day if it were handed to him. Shields set a new club record for appearances last season with 78, breaking the mark set by Minnie Rojas in 1967.

Next in line is newcomer J.C. Romero, a left-hander who hasn't simply been demoted from a spot in the rotation but is a tested late-inning reliever. Romero is the lone lefty in the pen, but he will not be confined to a one-hitter specialist role with the Angels. He's been equally effective against both left-handed hitters and right-handers, logging 4 1/3 innings in his four relief appearances.

Completing the bullpen is another newcomer in Hector Carrasco, who is the dedicated long man but is also the spot starter with additional experience as a late-inning reliever. Right-hander Esteban Yan has been relegated to the mop-up role.

At full strength, the highest that Donnelly can climb is fourth.

"This is the deepest bullpen I've seen," manager Mike Scioscia said. "The way our bullpen turned out in 2002 because we had Percy as the closer and Frankie had emerged into a setup role, Donnelly and Shields were long guys and then there was Ben Weber. But this is the deepest we've been in the pen."

Which is a nice problem for the Angels, a headache for the opposition and a source of frustration for the guy who wants the ball but is more likely to hear his entrance anthem of "Thunderstruck" wedged somewhere between "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and the dot races than it is with the crowd on its feet, demanding three quick outs en route to a victory.

"My role is to keep Frankie and Shields and J.C. fresh so when we're winning a game late, they're ready," Donnelly said. "My job is to keep the [score] where it is."

The pressure innings had been Donnelly's domain, one that earned him an All-Star nod in 2003 as a setup man. He went 2-2 with a 1.58 ERA in 63 appearances for the Angels that season. Donnelly was also credited with the win in the All-Star Game as the American League upended the National League, 7-6.

Scioscia was the manager of the AL squad and teammate Garret Anderson was named MVP of the game a day after winning the Home Run Derby.

The following year, Donnelly was hit in the face by a batted ball in Spring Training and sustained 20 fractures. That and tendinitis in his right elbow limited Donnelly to 40 appearances. Last season, he made 65 appearances but saw his position in the pen fall behind others and he finished with a 9-3 mark and a 3.72 ERA.

Donnelly entered this spring trimmed of about 25-30 pounds and feeling healthier than he had in three years. Realizing he needed to recapture some of his lost effectiveness, Donnelly developed a new pitch, a two-seam fastball, and discovered it as any self-respecting ball player would.

"I stole it from him," Donnelly said while motioning to Shields' locker. "He doesn't know it yet."

Donnelly doesn't have a power arm and wanted a pitch to complement his split-finger, one that has some late downward movement. He hasn't quite commanded the pitch yet and said that is why he's issued four walks in five innings this season. But he's also held the opposition to a .133 batting average while allowing one run.

He'd prefer to throw the pitch in the late innings with a lead when hitters can't afford to be patient. But he is more than capable of reading the depth chart.

"It is not going to happen here," Donnelly said. "Not with the talent we have."

So he'll take the ball and pump up the volume in his own head even if the situation calls for a glance at the Kiss Cam and not a standing, high-decibel roar.

Mike Scarr is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.