Bullpen turns from weakness to strength

Bullpen getting past struggles

ANAHEIM -- All of a sudden, the disaster area is starting to resemble, as in years past, a safety zone.

The Angels' bullpen is beginning to take shape, after a long and difficult siege.

The latest signs of a return to strength -- and confidence -- surfaced on Sunday in the afterglow of a 4-3 decision that completed a weekend sweep of a Royals club that came in flying high with a six-game winning streak.

Scot Shields, pitching two dominant innings and looking like the man who has led the American League in holds the past three seasons, was the big story. But the veteran right-hander was not the only story from the reconstructed bullpen manager Mike Scioscia is carefully nursing back to health.

"It was everything," Scioscia said when asked to evaluate Shields' work, which featured four strikeouts and one walk, all that separated it from six up, six down. "The ball was coming out of his hand hot. He had great movement and was able to locate it -- and had a terrific breaking ball.

"That's the Scot we know who's in there."

Shields has been struggling with tendinitis in his left knee, but he's one of the toughest athletes Scioscia has had the pleasure to manage -- and he acknowledges that he sometimes has to dig deep to get an honest answer from Shields about his physical condition.

"That's true of all our guys since [Troy] Percival was here," Scioscia said.

Before Shields' overpowering work, Darren Oliver had delivered seven outs with his customary aplomb.

There is not a cooler customer in the game than the 38-year-old left-hander, and his presence can be soothing to younger teammates trying to make an impression.

"Darren's just a great guy to have on your staff, in every way," Jason Bulger said. "He's so calm and relaxed and so open about sharing his knowledge."

If Oliver is the glue, the 'pen came apart for a spell when he was forced into a brief fling as a starter. His four innings in Minnesota on April 18 -- he was excellent, yielding only one run -- resulted in a triceps strain that put him on the 15-day disabled list.

But Oliver is back, bringing stability to middle relief and humor to the bullpen.

"Darren's been consistent," Scioscia said. "He got seven outs [on Sunday, after starter Shane Loux had struggled]. I thought he stopped the bleeding, being able to make pitches. He had the [low] pitch count to give us two innings, and Shields needed only six pitches to get through the seventh.

"That's the kind of work we're looking for out there. Our bullpen really came through for us."

Closer Brian Fuentes needed an assist from Torii Hunter to register his ninth save on Sunday.

Hunter elevated high above the wall in left center to steal a leadoff homer from Miguel Olivo in the ninth. Fuentes then allowed a walk and a single, but he got the pitch he needed to turn a game-ending double play against David DeJesus.

"It felt great to support Brian and the rest of the guys," Hunter said. "Our bullpen has been taxed with all the injuries and everything we've had, but we know what we have down there. Those guys are going to come through for us.

"We saw that today, and I think we're going to see it all season once everything settles down and guys get in their roles."

The Angels have won four in a row, seven of eight and 10 of 13, consistent with the surge in higher-quality work out of the bullpen.

Several ugly ERAs are coming down, game by game. Shields fell to 7.71, Fuentes to 5.40. Jose Arredondo is at 5.27. That's not what you're looking from your main back-end men, but they're all showing signs of finding the right stuff.

More indicative of Fuentes' stuff are his interior numbers. In 13 games covering 11 2/3 innings, the closer has struck out 15 hitters while walking five and yielding 14 hits. What that shows is his stuff is alive, but he's not where he needs to be consistently with his command.

The same holds for Arredondo, who burst on the scene with uncommon poise and success as a rookie last season.

In 15 appearances, covering 13 2/3 innings, Arredondo has 19 strikeouts against only three walks, giving up 15 hits. Those numbers, standing alone, do not compute with a 5.27 ERA.

"It's pretty close to where it was early in the year last year," Scioscia said of Arredondo's fastball, which has taken a while to reach the 92-95-mph range. "He's got plenty of fuzz. His splitty [split-fingered fastball] and slider have been very good.

"We've seen him throwing 91, 92, 93. He'll work into 94, 95. He's got a number of pitches that he can bring into a game. Power fastballs with movement are where he gets most of his outs."

The Angels won't know the eventual composition of their bullpen until the rotation gets fully organized. John Lackey and Ervin Santana could reclaim their starting roles on the road trip that opens in Texas on Friday, and Kelvim Escobar and Dustin Moseley also are on the comeback trail along with reliever Kevin Jepsen.

How all of this shakes out, and what impact it will have on Loux and Matt Palmer, is a matter of conjecture at this point. Also in the picture are Justin Speier, struggling to find his consistent command, along with Bulger, Rafael Rodriguez and others on call at Triple-A Salt Lake, a quick flight away.

So many arms, so many options.

"It's good to think about having an abundance of pitching, after what we've been through," Scioscia said, grinning.

"When we get everybody rolling," added Hunter, the eternal optimist, "I'll stack up our pitching against anybody's."

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