TEMPE, Ariz. -- After a 2011 season in which Kevin Jepsen really wasn't himself on the mound, battling a knee problem and the struggles that came with it, his mission this spring is simple: He just needs to get back to being the valuable reliever the Angels have come to know and rely upon over the past few years. "My goal is to just come in and show them that I'm back healthy, the stuff is there and I can go out and get guys out," the 27-year-old Jepsen said.
So far, he's on the right track. So far, he's looking like Kevin Jepsen again.
"He's much closer, he looks like it," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "His velocity's up, his breaking balls are sharper. He's closer. We're happy to see where he is, that's for sure." Added pitching coach Mike Butcher: "He's impressed us so far in this camp. His velocity's back and he's in great shape." Butcher pointed out Jepsen came into 2011 camp a little light and now has regained some of that "good weight" that was part of the foundation of two strong seasons in the Majors before last year. For Jepsen, the 2011 season only became a heavier burden with each passing month, as he shuttled back and forth to Triple-A Salt Lake until he shut it down with Aug. 31 surgery on the right knee. The knee and the ineffectiveness on the mound -- he had a 7.62 ERA in 16 outings for the Angels, with just six strikeouts, nine walks and five wild pitches -- fed off of each other, Jepsen said. He was trying to work his way through the knee issues, and that's just no way to be an effective pitcher at any level. "It's tough when you have an injury and as a competitor you want to play through it as best you can," he said. "But I think it gets to the point where you're going, 'OK, am I able to play on this?' To me, it was getting to where my mechanics were changing, and my arm was starting to drop, so I'm wondering, 'Am I going to hurt my arm doing this?' I got to where the answer was, 'Yes,' so I had to shut it down." This year is a brand new year, and it feels good to Jepsen. "Being healthy and strong, I definitely feel a lot stronger coming into spring this year," said Jepsen, who has allowed one run on three hits in three one-inning stints so far this spring, striking out four and walking two. Of course, things have changed a bit under the halo in the last few months. Obviously, the team made huge moves that brought in superstar slugger Albert Pujols and starter C.J. Wilson. But the Angels also picked up veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins, and then signed another veteran in Jason Isringhausen to a Minor League deal as camp opened up. The bullpen might be a little more crowded than when he last was established as part of its core, but Jepsen is very much in the mix this spring. "There's always room for another good arm in the 'pen," Scioscia said. "I think that Kevin Jepsen, first, obviously wants to make our team. He wants to get back to the form he showed in '09 and '10. In '09 in the second half of the season, I don't know if there was anybody more important to our bullpen than Kevin Jepsen." Indeed, Jepsen reeled off eight consecutive scoreless appearances as the Angels went into September that year, staying on the roster from June 10 forward. He made 68 appearances in 2010, leading the Angels' bullpen in holds with 27 and strikeouts with 61, spending the entire season with the big club. That's the pitcher the Angels hope and believe will be back on the mound this season, regardless of how the bullpen shakes out. "He needs to go out there and pitch like he's capable of pitching again," Butcher said. "He's very capable of doing that. He's got to go out and pitch like he can, and he'll create his own role. If Kevin Jepsen pitches the way he can, he can pitch anywhere in the back end of anybody's bullpen." The Angels are already glad it's their bullpen that he's headed back toward, and Jepsen has a good sense that he's in position to regain what got lost along the way in 2011. "The location on pitches, the way it's coming out of my hand, everything else, as a pitcher you know when you're there," Jepsen said. "And I definitely have that feel back, that everything's back where it needs to be."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.