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Making Grahe Matter : Angels’ Closer Has an Image Problem--He Doesn’t Have One

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe Grahe needs to cultivate an image. At the moment, he’s without one, and that’s no way for the Angels’ most trusted relief pitcher to go through his career.

Bryan Harvey, Grahe’s predecessor as the Angels’ closer, earned a reputation as a stone-faced man who took long, slow walks around the mound in between throwing wicked forkballs.

Harvey came across as unflappable and, on many nights, unhittable. For four seasons, he was the heart and soul of the Angel bullpen. Most games, he was the Angel bullpen.

But Harvey is a Florida Marlin now, gone in the Angels’ off-season commitment to youth and cost-cutting. And the job has fallen to Grahe, who turned out to be a reliable replacement when Harvey had elbow surgery last season.

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The effects of Harvey’s departure seem less significant, now that the Angels are 13-5 and leading the American League West, but that hasn’t done much for Grahe, who simply does not command the respect Harvey once did around Anaheim Stadium.

When Grahe was briefly sidelined because of a pinched nerve in his neck last week, teammates were quick to dub him, “Neckersley.” And when they learned he had hurt himself by sniffing hard to clear his nostrils, they howled with laughter.

Grahe does not come across as intimidating or particularly confident. He says his primary goals are to avoid injury and demotion to the minor leagues.

He hasn’t nailed down the No. 1 closer’s spot, sharing duties with Julio Valera, a former starter and now a reluctant reliever.

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When somebody shook Grahe’s hand and wished him good luck on opening day, he smiled and said, “Thanks, I’ll need it.”

He is hardly a picture of confidence even when things go his way. When he survived a rocky ninth inning in saving the Angels’ 2-1 victory over Boston’s Roger Clemens last Sunday, for instance, he was quick to credit unseen forces.

“I’ve got my invisible horseshoe lying in my locker right now,” Grahe said, laughing.

But winning evidently has taken some of the edge off for Grahe.

“We’re all feeding off each other’s success,” Grahe said. “Deep down, if you asked every person on this team if we’d get off 13-5, they’d be lying if they said yes. A more legitimate goal is to be around .500.

“My goal is to stay in the big leagues the entire season. If that happens, then everything else takes care of itself.”

Grahe’s two saves in five appearances pale in comparison to Harvey’s seven in nine as a Marlin, although neither Grahe nor Manager Buck Rodgers is displeased with the results.

“For the most part, we’ve ham-and-egged it pretty good with Julio and Grahe,” Rodgers said. “They are the two guys we’ve got confidence in right now. We’ve eliminated the setup guy and gone straight to the closers. Joe will probably do more closing, and Julio will get the three-inning jobs.”

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Sharing the duties has further served to make Grahe a household no-name, however.

Last season, Grahe got saves in 21 of 24 opportunities, allowed only three of 18 inherited runners to score, and still couldn’t establish his own identity.

Now, he finds himself battling Valera as well as the memory of Harvey, who had 109 saves in four seasons.

“I can’t say I expected it,” Grahe said of the Angels’ decision to let Harvey go unprotected in the expansion draft. “It was a calculated risk the Angels took. But I can’t focus on that at all. I have to do whatever job is given to me. You have to go out there and lay it all on the line and see what happens.”

The good has outweighed the bad in Grahe’s five outings. Besides the two saves, he has a 1-1 record with a 2.79 earned-run average. Last season, his first as a reliever, he had a 3-3 record with a 1.80 ERA.

“This could be the easiest job in the world,” he said. “Or the toughest. If it doesn’t work out this time, you have to be in the frame of mind that next time it will.”

Despite his own success, Grahe said he misses Harvey.

After all, it was Harvey who taught Grahe the ropes--when to warm up, for how long and at what intensity.

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There was more, of course. How you look on the mound is at least as important as the pitches you throw, according to Grahe. It’s not so much a routine to follow but an idea that what you’re doing will get batters out.

In his role, there is little room for error.

“In pitching, the No. 1 ingredient you have to have is confidence,” Grahe said. “Whatever you lack, the hitters are going to pick up on. Confidence, not necessarily when things are going good, but when they’re going bad (is crucial). You tend to rebound quicker that way.”

Harvey never seemed to lack confidence, but, then again, it was tough to know what he was thinking. Grahe has tried to adopt a similar demeanor.

“I just try to keep cool,” Grahe said. “Whether or not it’s a routine, I’m showing a presence every time out there.”

If that’s so, it’s difficult to notice. It’s something Grahe will just have to keeping perfecting.


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