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Bull market

Angels' relievers making believers out of most

Posted: Saturday October 12, 2002 1:52 AM
Updated: Saturday October 12, 2002 2:11 AM
  Troy Percival Troy Percival has recorded saves in four of his five appearances this postseason. AP

By Stephen Cannella, Sports Illustrated

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Maybe it was machismo talking. Maybe he plays winter ball on some other planet where every pitcher throws 98 mph and has a slider that breaks a foot.

Whatever the reason, Torii Hunter isn’t as impressed by the Angels’ relievers as he should be. "Their bullpen is good, but I don’t think they’re that good," the Twins center fielder said after Anaheim’s 2-1 win in Game 3 of the ALCS. "They’re one of the tops in the league, but I’ve seen better bullpens."

Hunter didn’t explain where exactly -- perhaps there’s a rec league team out there where Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter and Mariano Rivera are teammates -- but it’s difficult to fathom a bullpen performing better than the Angels’ has in the first three games of this series.

Ben Weber, Brendan Donnelly, Scott Schoeneweis, Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival have pitched a total of 8 2/3 innings. They haven’t allowed a run; in fact they’ve given up just one hit and one walk. Half of the 26 outs they’ve recorded have come on strikeouts.

The Twins bullpen has been nearly as good, and the effectiveness of both relief corps has begun to affect the way these games are managed. Runs in the middle innings are suddenly at such a premium that both teams are playing those frames they way they usually would the eighth or ninth. Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire admitted as much on Friday night when he talked about the decisions he made in the seventh inning.

"I don’t know if you’ve paid much attention to their bullpen, but if you give up a run there it’s pretty much Katie bar the door," he said. "You don’t want to get into their bullpen late in the game."

In the bottom of the seventh, with the score tied 1-1, bullpen-phobia produced the most nail-biting inning of the series. Minnesota right-hander Latroy Hawkins walked Bengie Molina to start things -- a huge mistake, considering the free-swinging Molina walked all of 15 times this season and was 0-for-8 in the series. Knowing how important that run was, Angels manager Mike Scioscia sent Chone Figgins in to pinch run. Figgins, a September callup, is a speedster, but on a handful of occasions already this postseason he’s shown he has the baserunning instincts of a sofa.

Figgins was sacrificed to second, then made his first mistake of the inning when David Eckstein lined a single off the glove of second baseman Luis Rivas. Figgins got a late jump and failed to score as the ball dribbled into shallow center field. With runners on first and third Gardenhire went to his bullpen again and called in left-hander Johan Santana to face Darin Erstad. Santana’s second pitch bounced in the dirt, caromed off catcher A.J. Pierzynkski’s chest protector and rolled halfway down the third-base line in foul ground. But Figgins inexplicably stayed at third, even though a runner with his speed should have scored easily.

At the time, it was a crucial gaffe. Two pitches later Erstad hit a bouncer to Rivas, who gunned down Figgins at home. With runners at the corners Gardenhire then brought in right-hander Mike Jackson to face Tim Salmon. After a walk, left-hander J.C. Romero came on to face Garret Anderson, who flied out to end the inning.

The Twins dodged a bullet, right? Wrong. Gardenhire knew the Twins wouldn’t touch the Anaheim pen, and therefore he was forced to manage the seventh inning like it was Game 7 of the World Series. Thus he had no power righties left to get him through the eighth. Romero was left in to face Troy Glaus, and the Angels third baseman hit the fifth pitch of the inning into the seats in right center. Granted, Romero is effective against right-handed hitters (he allowed just three homers in 81 innings this year), but in a perfect world he wouldn’t have been the one facing Glaus.

Thanks to 20-year-old Francisco Rodriguez, who retired the Twins in order on 12 pitches in the eighth, the Angels had a one-run lead. Glaus’s first thought as the ball cleared the fence? "That it was 2-1, and now we had a chance to bring Percy in to win the game."

Percy is myopic closer Troy Percival, who has never allowed a run in 35 career appearances against the Twins. "You realize what you’re going to get from him," Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "A squinting madman who throws 200 mph."

Predictably, the Twins went down in order in the ninth, and they now trail in the series 2-1. To come back, they’ll have to somehow solve the snarling monster that is the Angels bullpen.


 
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