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Late to the mound, fast to the plate
Angels reliever Stokes a late bloomer
By Lyle Spencer
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Like Jason Bulger, the Southern gentleman seated at the next chair in the home clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium, Brian Stokes came very late to the craft of pitching.
Bulger, an infielder in his youth, didn't start pitching seriously until his senior year at Valdosta (Ga.) State University. Stokes also had reached his 20s before he realized the mound was his natural habitat.
"We're late bloomers," Bulger said, grinning. "We didn't use up our arms when we were young kids."
At Jurupa Valley High School in Mira Loma, Calif., and at nearby Riverside Community College, Stokes -- acquired by the Angels from the Mets for Gary Matthews Jr. in January -- was an outfielder who hit and chased line drives.
It wasn't until he'd completed his studies at Riverside that Stokes, attending a tryout camp in Irvine at the suggestion of a friend -- right down the road from Angel Stadium -- discovered a natural affinity for pitching.
"It was a scout league that played on Sundays," Stokes said. "I pitched two Sundays and was signed by Tampa Bay. I guess they saw something they liked."
What the Rays saw, in those Sunday outings and as Stokes began working his way through the system in 1999, was something Angels manager Mike Scioscia is beginning to appreciate.
"We've seen video of him pitching last year with the Mets and previously with Tampa Bay," Scioscia said. "In these workouts, he's shown us a power arm, which we knew he had.
"He's a multi-inning guy, for sure. He's got the kind of arm that can play deep in a 'pen. There's a lot of upside with Stokes."
Stokes was durable and effective last season for the Mets, logging 69 appearances and 70 1/3 innings while going 2-4 with a 3.97 ERA.
Darren Oliver, now with the Rangers, led the Angels bullpen with 69 innings last season in 62 relief appearances.
BRIAN STOKES' CAREER STATS
Catcher Mike Napoli, who appraises pitchers from the viewpoint of a hitter as well as a receiver, sees in the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Stokes "a guy who throws pretty hard with some sink. He has life on his ball.
"He looks like a guy who can get early-count outs, which is important if he's going to be working in long relief. That role is going to be huge for the bullpen. We need people in that role to get you two, three innings sometimes to save the bullpen for the next day."
Stokes has joined a bullpen that features Brian Fuentes, Scot Shields, Fernando Rodney, Kevin Jepsen and Bulger, along with Matt Palmer, who excelled in relief after delivering quality work as a starter in 2009.
"I'm ready for anything," Stokes said. "I'll condition my arm for whatever they need. I have no preference. We have a lot of great arms in this bullpen."
His father labors as a diesel mechanic in Chino, Calif., and Stokes clearly inherited a feel for good mechanics. He hasn't had any arm issues -- knock on wood -- and continues to absorb information from any and all sources.
In New York the past two seasons, Stokes studied at the feet of three acknowledged masters of the craft: Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez, the former Angels record-smashing closer.
"I talked to them about a lot of things -- the changeup, keeping hitters off balance, how they hold their pitches," Stokes said. "I watched them closely, how they prepared, how they pitched guys.
"With Frankie, for instance, I learned a lot about how he mixes it up and never gives in. Frankie can be 3-0 and he'll throw three changeups. He was throwing in the mid-90s last year, but his off-speed stuff was so good I think he used it more often than his fastball.
"With Pedro, it was the way he's so aggressive, always attacking the hitters. With Johan, it was his mentality, and how he keeps hitters off balance.
"It's a learning process. You're always getting information, talking to guys."
Early on, Stokes relied on his four-seam fastball and a hard cutter, thrown with a different grip. Gradually, he began to develop a breaking ball he calls a "slurve" -- part slider, part curve -- and a changeup.
"That was the hardest part of pitching for me, to develop other pitches," he said. "Most guys have been pitching their whole career. I had to start from scratch."
Self-made in the beginning, he began to evolve at Tampa Bay, where one of his teachers was an upbeat guy named Mike Butcher -- now the Angels' esteemed pitching coach.
"I love him," Stokes said. "When I got a September callup in Tampa [in 2006], I got to know him. He's hard-nosed, just like me. He likes you to be aggressive, and he's very optimistic.
"I feel good about things. I came here to work hard. It's the same every year. You have to prove yourself."
Doing it less than an hour from where he grew up, in the Inland Empire of Southern California, is a bonus for this late bloomer who found his home on the mound.
At 30, Brian Stokes aims to show that his best days are in front of him.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.