ARLINGTON -- The numbers aren't pretty. But even though the Angels entered Tuesday with statistically one of the two worst bullpens in the Major Leagues, neither its members nor manager Mike Scioscia believes for a second it is really that bad. "I didn't realize we were as bad as we were. That was definitely a shock," reliever Scot Shields said, referring to his bullpen's rank of 13th in the American League and 29th among the 30 Major League teams, with a 6.49 ERA.
"We know we have the talent down in our bullpen to be one of the best in the league. We're just not showing it right now." Injuries have played a large part in disrupting a unit that Scioscia still believes will be a strength of his team. Among the issues: Starting pitchers John Lackey (triceps strain) and Kelvim Escobar (torn labrum) were not available to start the season, forcing right-hander Dustin Moseley out of the 'pen to cover one of the rotation spots. Escobar's return is uncertain, but Lackey is progressing and should rejoin the rotation next month. Right-hander Chris Bootcheck, who pitched 51 times out of the pen in 2007, has been out since March 21 because of a strained muscle near his rib cage. He also is expected back in May, but his absence has been felt. The normally outstanding back end of the bullpen has been unsettled by injuries. Setup man Shields missed two weeks with tightness in his right forearm that limited him to only two Spring Training games and put him on the disabled list for the first time in his career. Closer Francisco Rodriguez missed four games because of a sprained right ankle. Rookies Jason Bulger (9.64 ERA) and Darren O'Day (.300 opponents' batting average) have been pressed into Major League service earlier than desired to cover some of the absences and reassignments, with only partial success. Veterans Justin Speier (6.75 ERA) and Darren Oliver (5.68 ERA) haven't been much better bets. The hope, of course, is that by mid-May, the Angels will have Lackey back in the rotation, Moseley and Bootcheck back in the 'pen, Shields and Rodriguez completely healthy, and Speier and Oliver straightened out. O'Day has a chance to win a spot, but he is pitching above Double-A for the first time and could probably benefit from more seasoning. Scioscia took Monday's series opener against Texas as a good omen. Though Speier was unable to prevent an unearned run (he has been scored upon in four of his first six appearances), Shields rescued him in the eighth to lower his ERA to 2.08 and Rodriguez needed only seven pitches to close the ninth for his fourth save in five chances. "Frankie has the ability to do that when his command comes back," Scioscia said. "That was a good sign. ... I think his stuff looks good right now. He's got plenty of fastball and he's hitting some spots." Getting the rest of the relievers to perform as well in their designated roles until the reinforcements arrive is the key now. "Hopefully we're getting right," Shields said. "We're getting back to our roles, and that's huge, because we know when to get ready to pitch in certain situations." Speier stranded 30 of 36 inherited runners a year ago, but hasn't looked the same this season. Scioscia said there are no suspicions that he is pitching hurt. "I've talked to him, and I think he's fine," Scioscia said. "He's just a little frustrated right now about not being able to execute some pitches the way he'd like." As for Shields, Scioscia said, "I think Scot feels more comfortable now. To get those guys lined up again in the back of our bullpen is going to help us settle all the other guys ahead of them." It can't happen soon enough. Through 14 games, the Angels' relievers had given up 44 hits (including five home runs) in 34 2/3 innings, and issued 17 walks. They ranked last in the AL and 28th in the Majors with an opponents' batting average of .312. So is there any concern these subpar numbers might continue? "No chance," Shields said confidently. "Not with the talent we have down there." And Scioscia agrees that, yet again, the Angels' bullpen will be considered one of the team's biggest weapons by the time the season winds down. "Absolutely," he said. "It's vital to us. Our bullpen is one of the biggest reasons why we've performed so well over the last eight or nine years. And we're confident it's going to be one of the reasons why we'll achieve this year. "Once we get things settled, those guys will make pitches and get outs."
Ken Daley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.