Fuentes set to thrive in playoff surroundings

Fuentes set to thrive in playoff surroundings

ANAHEIM -- After making the postseason just once in his first eight years in the Majors, closer Brian Fuentes wanted to join a winning organization when he became a free agent last offseason.

So the California native naturally chose the Angels, who have been constant fixtures in the postseason under manager Mike Scioscia ever since winning the World Series in 2002.

Fuentes was rewarded for his decision by not only achieving his first goal -- the Angels won the American League West for the fifth time in six years -- but he also led the Majors with 47 saves.

Now Fuentes will get a second chance at the postseason after being part of the amazing 2007 Rockies team that won 21 out of 22 games to reach the World Series before being swept by the Red Sox, who naturally will be the Angels' opponent in this year's American League Division Series, starting Thursday at 6:37 p.m. PT.

Fuentes is certainly excited about getting yet another opportunity to face Boston in the postseason.

"It's nice, especially because so many guys never make it to the playoffs," Fuentes said. "So to make it two times in three years is definitely a luxury. It was one of the big reasons why I signed here. I knew they were competitive and had a chance to make it to the postseason every year."

Fuentes' last trip to the postseason didn't exactly go as planned despite throwing 5 1/3 scoreless innings in his first six appearances of the postseason as the team's setup man to then-closer Manuel Corpas.

Fuentes by the numbers
Year Team SV-SVO G ERA
2001 SEA 0-1 10 4.63
2002 COL 0-0 31 4.73
2003 COL 4-6 75 2.75
2004 COL 0-1 47 5.64
*2005 COL 31-34 78 2.91
*2006 COL 30-46 66 3.44
*2007 COL 20-27 64 3.08
2008 COL 30-34 67 2.73
*2009 LAA 48-55 65 3.93
*-All-Star selection

But he struggled over his next four appearances to the tune of a 14.54 ERA to finish the postseason with a 6.52 ERA in 10 games.

Fuentes, though, like any good closer said he's turned the page from that postseason and is ready to move on and focus on what lies ahead.

"I don't even think about the past, I only worry about the future," Fuentes said.

Fuentes instead said he's glad he experienced the postseason so that he knows what to expect.

"It's definitely helps I've been there before but even my first time I wasn't intimidated," Fuentes said. "I wasn't that way in the World Series or in the postseason so for me it's just about going out there and competing to the best of my ability."

Fuentes can also take comfort in knowing he has been on a roll recently by converting his last seven saves without allowing a run in any of those appearances.

But that streak came after struggling in the middle of September when he had a 5.40 ERA in his first seven appearances of the month.

He even struggled enough for Scioscia to hold a closed-door meeting on Sept. 13, along with pitching coach Mike Butcher, to address problems with Fuentes' mechanics.

Scioscia's confidence in Fuentes, however, never wavered after that meeting as Fuentes was able to turn it around and finish strong over those last seven outings to finish the season with a Major League-high 47 saves in 55 opportunities with a 3.93 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 55 innings pitched. He was named an All-Star for the fourth time in his career.

"He had a great year," reliever Kevin Jepsen said. "All year all we've been trying to do is get the ball into his hand. We know once he gets the ball we know he's going to close it out."

Fuentes and Jepsen, who is the team's setup man to Fuentes, will be leaned on heavily in the postseason for the Angels this year along with fellow relievers Darren Oliver and Jason Bulger.

The quartet has been a solid combination in the second half of the season with a combined 3.08 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 122 2/3 innings since the All-Star Break. And together they're proof that the team's overall bullpen ERA of 4.49 is deceiving because they figure to get the bulk of the relieving opportunities in the postseason along with converted starter Ervin Santana.

"I think we feel really good about Kevin Jepsen, Jason Bulger and Darren Oliver getting us to a point when Brian Fuentes can close it out on the back end," Scioscia said. "If our starters are able to get to a point of a game, we'll be fine."

And that confidence is shared by the relievers, too, as they feel they can shut down the high-powered Red Sox lineup in the ALDS.

"We're real confident as a group we can get it done," Jepsen said. "The starters have been throwing great as of late, which has minimized our workload and that's always good. We're just going to bridge the gap and get the ball to Fuentes in the ninth."

And if Fuentes gets that chance to get the ball in the ninth, he knows what's at stake.

"I'm ready," Fuentes said with a grin, "and feeling good."

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