Fuentes deserves more credit for 2009

Fuentes' '09 deserves more credit

Relief pitchers are the offensive linemen of baseball. They're generally taken for granted and noticed only when they let a lead get away, the weight of the world crashing down on their shoulders.

So it was for Brian Fuentes in his debut season for the Angels in 2009.

By most reasonable measures, the lefty acquired as a free agent after seven seasons in Colorado to replace Francisco Rodriguez earned his keep. The man with the unorthodox delivery, assortment of stuff and modest heater managed to get the ninth-inning job done.

Fuentes' 48 saves led the Majors. His .873 percentage was seventh-best in the American League, which is loaded with respected closers. Bringing in the National League, his success rate was a tick behind the Padres' Heath Bell (.875) and better than the likes of Jose Valverde, Jonathan Broxton and Brian Wilson.

While his save percentage was middle-of-the-pack in the AL, Fuentes was tested more heavily than anybody in the Majors. His 55 opportunities were the most in the game, three more than Joe Nathan had in Minnesota.

With the arrival of free agent Fernando Rodney and the return of Scot Shields from knee surgery, speculation is abound about how the back end of the Angels' bullpen will take shape.

Rodney led the Majors in save percentage at .974 in '09, converting 37 of 38 opportunities for the Tigers. But Fuentes, despite struggles on occasion with command and location, didn't exactly spit the bit.

Never one to overplay his hand, manager Mike Scioscia will figure how best to maneuver his relievers depending on health and effectiveness. Nothing is etched in granite with the creative Scioscia, the two-time AL Manager of the Year.

Fuentes has no desire to become a lefty specialist, but the fact he's the only southpaw in the bullpen has fueled speculation he'll be deployed in that role while sharing closing duties with Rodney.

"I came here to pitch the ninth inning," Fuentes said the day he signed a two-year deal with a vesting option for 2011 based on games finished. He hasn't changed that tune.

Such is the fate of closers that Fuentes is largely remembered for one ill-timed delivery to Alex Rodriguez in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. His fastball away in the 11th inning, as he tried to protect a one-run lead, was sent rocketing into the seats for an opposite-field homer. The Yankees went on to win in extra innings and seize a 2-0 series lead.

That was the only hit surrendered by Fuentes in October. He faced 19 batters on the big stage and got 14 outs for a 1.93 ERA. His three saves included two in the AL Division Series sweep of Boston -- setting down the Red Sox to finish the job in Game 3 -- and a dramatic Game 5 in the ALCS at Angel Stadium that sent the show back to the Bronx.

That Game 5 rescue job was not what is known as a clean save -- he loaded the bases with two outs before retiring Nick Swisher on a popup -- but Fuentes, in his fashion, got it done.

"That was the biggest moment you can have in a game," Fuentes said in the afterglow. "I knew what I had to do. I knew the consequences. Doing what I do, you have to learn to shuffle it to the back of your mind and do what you've got to do -- get that last out."

Fuentes did not hide after A-Rod made him pay for poor location. Known as "Tito" in the clubhouse, he rose to his full 6-feet-4 afterward and took all the heat and blame even as teammates were quick to exonerate him.

"Brian's done the job for us all year," setup man Kevin Jepsen said. "We all know how valuable he is. We're extremely confident if we can get the ball in his hands with a lead."

Closing in the postseason can be a daunting responsibility, making the great Mariano Rivera all the more remarkable. Only Rivera (0.56 ERA in 16 innings) and the Cardinals' Ryan Franklin (no earned runs in 1 1/3 innings) fared better than Fuentes.

Consider the following 2009 postseason ERAs of several of the game's premier closers: Brad Lidge, 5.40; Broxton, 4.05; Nathan, 9.00; Jonathan Papelbon, 13.50; Huston Street, 13.50.

Fuentes' popularity with teammates is rooted in his professional demeanor and productivity. It doesn't hurt that he tends to clean up other pitchers' messes if called upon to do so.

Fuentes inherited 17 baserunners in '09 and allowed only three to score. That 0.18 mark was the best among all Angels relievers except Justin Speier (0.14), who was released after yielding too many long balls in inopportune moments.

In limited opportunities in Detroit, Rodney was just as tough in those situations. Only one of his eight inherited runners scored, for a 0.13 mark.

The return of Shields, assuming he's back in form, adds one of the most versatile arms in the game to the bullpen. He led the AL in holds three consecutive seasons (2006-08) and led all relievers in innings (425) from 2004-08.

As for the absence of a southpaw specialist, Shields' electric stuff has enabled him to fare better against left-handed hitters in his career. They've batted .218 against him with a .329 slugging percentage, compared to .234 and .333, respectively, by right-handers.

Young right-hander Jason Bulger also has had success against left-handed batsmen, holding them to a .216 average and .433 slugging percentage compared to .240 and .393 by right-handed swingers.

Rodney has been marginally better against right-handed hitters than lefties across his seven seasons with the Tigers.

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