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Oliver has reinvented himself with Angels
Oliver has reinvented himself with Angels
By T.R. Sullivan
ANAHEIM -- When the 27th out was recorded on Thursday night, Angels catcher Jeff Mathis went to the mound for the customary high-five with his pitcher following a 5-0 victory over the Red Sox.
The pitcher waiting for him was not winning pitcher John Lackey or All-Star closer Brian Fuentes. Instead he ran into Darren Oliver, the Angels' veteran left-handed reliever who is three days removed from his 39th birthday and five years removed from baseball oblivion.
He was the guy that manager Mike Scioscia called upon to notch the final five outs in one of the biggest victories for the Angels in the past few years.
"I didn't think about it like that," Oliver said in his typical understated way. "I just went out there and tried to get people out."
He must have heard 45,070 people screaming as the Angels nailed down Game 1 of the 2009 American League Division Series.
"I can't even hear the crowd out there," Oliver said. "I'm just too focused. Seriously ... I hear them when I'm not pitching, but when I'm pitching, I'm too focused. It's not like I'm going to rear back and get something extra on the ball. Those days are over.
"It's not like I can still throw 96-97 [mph]."
Yes, he could once throw that hard when he was one of the Rangers' top-pitching prospects back in the early '90s. At one point the Rangers even considered using him as a closer but were worried that he was too fragile to pitch in relief.
"Can you imagine that now," Oliver said.
It is difficult considering Oliver has reinvented himself into one of the top setup relievers in the game and one of the anchors of a bullpen that struggled at times this season. His 2.71 ERA is the lowest among Angels relievers. He has pitched in 178 regular-season games for the Angels since 2007 and in both games of the ALDS.
"D.O. has probably had an impact on a lot of guys in our bullpen, much like Bobby Abreu has on the offensive side," Scioscia said. "Darren's been around. He understands his game. He understands coming into situations, what you need to bring out of the bullpen, what you might need to establish focusing a first pitch and making it a good one.
"A lot of things that D.O. does have been important to our younger relief pitchers. I think the biggest impact D.O. has had is the production. If you look at this guy's numbers over the last couple of years, they're terrific. It's something we've really needed, especially with our bullpen in a state of flux. Darren has been as steady as anyone."
This is the icing on Oliver's career. Five years ago, it appeared his career was on ice. After arriving in the Major Leagues as a reliever for the Rangers in 1993, he was moved into the rotation in '96 and had a decent eight-year run as a starter, going 76-74 in 211 starts and six relief appearances with a 5.13 ERA. The Rangers traded him to the Red Sox in 2001 for Carl Everett.
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In 2003, he was 13-11 with a 5.04 ERA with the Rockies. That was his last full season as a starter. He went 3-3 with a 5.94 ERA in 10 starts and 17 relief appearances for the Marlins and the Astros in '04. He had a sore shoulder at the end of the year and was just hanging around the team during the playoffs. The Astros reached the NLCS, but Oliver remained a non-roster spare part and his career seemed at the end.
He hit rock bottom in 2005. Oliver was at Triple-A all year and released by three different organizations. He was ready to retire. He kept trying because of his children, Brock and Maxwell, who are now nine and six years old.
"I wanted them to be able to watch me play and remember it," Oliver said.
So he signed with the Mets as a non-roster player in 2006 and found new life as a reliever.
"It took those guys a long time to warm up, and I didn't know how long it would take me to get warmed up" Oliver said. "But it's all right."
The Mets went to the NLCS in 2006, and Oliver signed with the Angels the following winter. The Angels have won three straight division titles. Before that, Oliver's only playoff experience was a 3-2 loss in a start for the Rangers against the Yankees in Game 3 of the 1996 ALDS. Now he has been going every year.
"It has been great," Oliver said. "The last four years I've been in the playoffs. It makes it a lot more fun when you're playing for something. Who knows ... if I had been playing the last four years with a losing team, I might have shut it down."
Oliver doesn't throw as hard as he did many years ago when he was a hot Rangers prospect, but he has the savvy and guile of a veteran and he still can hook a curveball. He doesn't get rattled as he did in his first Major League game back in 1993 at Fenway Park when his very first pitch went behind Mike Greenwell's head and all the way to the backstop.
"That was pretty bad," Oliver said, laughing at the memory so many years later.
The memories are better now. He and his family will decide after the season if he will pitch one more year. It's hard to imagine him walking away when he's having so much fun.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.