ANAHEIM -- Kevin Jepsen is ready, able and willing -- heavy emphasis on the willing -- to assume the pivotal eighth-inning role for the Angels in front of closer Brian Fuentes. "Absolutely," Jepsen said. "Being in the back end of the bullpen, close game in the eighth inning, seventh inning ... the adrenaline that you get in those situations, I love it." He could be the 2009 version of Jose Arredondo, who burst on the scene as a rookie last summer and gradually created a role in the late innings in front of Francisco Rodriguez, helping K-Rod notch his record 62 saves.
With Scot Shields out for the season with knee surgery and Arredondo coming back from elbow issues at Triple-A Salt Lake, the Angels have been mixing and matching in the seventh and eighth, looking for the hot hand. Versatile Darren Oliver, veteran Justin Speier and hard-throwing Jason Bulger absorbed most of those innings as Jepsen recovered from a back ailment that surfaced early in the season and sent him to the disabled list on April 19. Several early poundings in a diminished condition put his ERA in a place no pitcher wants to see it, but Jepsen seems to have found his rhythm and confidence in July. Jepsen, who turned 25 on Sunday, has been turning out the lights on opposing lineups with a mid-90s fastball, a developing cutter and a curveball that serves as his change-of-pace delivery. In 11 appearances this month, Jepsen -- a second-round choice out of Bishop Manogue (Nevada) High School in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft -- has yielded two earned runs for a 1.59 ERA. He has issued four walks while striking out 11 men, and his command has been especially sharp over his past six outings with six punchouts and no walks in 6 1/3 innings. "Jep is a guy we saw a little bit of last September. He pitched in the Olympics and really pitched well," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of Jepsen, who yielded no earned runs in 5 2/3 innings and saved the bronze medal-winning game for Team USA in Beijing. "He's a guy that we were very high on a number of years ago, got hurt and rebuilt his arm. With [pitching coach] Mike Butcher, they've made some adjustments with his stuff. He's really pitching well. He's been a big factor getting the ball to Brian Fuentes these last 20 games." Jepsen has added something new with the cut fastball, which he uses to bore in on left-handed hitters, a la Mariano Rivera, and to move away from right-handed hitters. He throws it in the 88-91-mph range, down from a four-seam fastball that consistently hits 95-97 on the radar gun and reached 98 against the Twins on Friday night, when he struck out three hitters in 1 1/3 innings. His four-seam fastball had exceptional movement on Monday night, when he got the last out of the seventh and kept the Indians scoreless in the eighth before they rallied to beat Fuentes. "What you have in the 'pen isn't necessarily what you're going to have on the mound," Jepsen said on Tuesday. "I felt a little off last night. I wasn't repeating as much as I have been. When you get that extra shot of adrenaline on the mound, it can do things with your fastball. In this case, it had a lot of life." If he can carry his July groove through to the finish, Jepsen figures to provide a consistent shot in the arm in the late innings for the Angels.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.