James Rides Angels' Wave of Enthusiasm : Baseball: Life is a thrill for the relief pitcher when things are going right in the water and on land.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pitcher Mike James reluctantly tore himself away from the beach for the last Angel trip. He couldn't believe the luck.

"The waves haven't been that good all year," James said.

But not for James, who put his surf board and skate board away to tour Kansas City, Minnesota and Chicago. The only thing breaking in those cities was his sinker.

When the Angels returned, James had improved his position in the bullpen. He pitched three times on the trip, including a career-high 3 1/3 innings against Minnesota, and earned two victories.

In his last 13 games, he is 3-0 with 0.98 earned-run average in an ever-increasing role.

There is only one way to relax from all that work. He hit the beach.

"I try to surf around my pitching," James said. "If I don't pitch, I don't get up early the next morning to surf. I do skate board about every day, but I've toned that down. Basically, I go out and kick around."

Then it's back to work.

James, who turned 28 Tuesday, has managed remain sharp in his favorite pastimes while carving out a baseball career. That hasn't always been easy with stops in Great Falls, Mont., Bakersfield and Albuquerque, N.M. Not exactly killer spots, surf-wise.

But where there's a swell, there's a way.

"There isn't a lot of surfing to do in Albuquerque, but a buddy and I found a wave pool in Phoenix," James said.

Still, there's nothing like the real thing in California, even for a guy who learned to surf along the Florida panhandle.

Other players received new cleats and running shoes during a swing through Detroit. Meanwhile, James was getting low-cut, black, skate board shoes.

When he got home, it was back to the beach.

"I've gotten in with a couple of professional surfers," James said. "I love to go out and just watch them rip it up."

James has done pretty much the same in his profession. Since July 6, his ERA has dropped from 4.84 to 3.10. He has also won three games--the first three victories in his major league career.

Not even his performance Friday could damper his enthusiasm of late. He gave up two singles and a walk in a third of an inning, as the Yankees extended a 4-3 lead to 7-3. But the fact he was on the mound in such a key moment was a sign of confidence in his abilities.

"In the beginning of the year, it seemed like I was coming in if we had a big lead or a big deficit," James said. "Now I'm coming in to hold a lead until we get to [Troy] Percival and Lee Smith area. It's kind of hard for me to figure it out."

Actually, it's not too difficult.

"When he keeps the ball down, he gets a lot of action on it," Manager Marcel Lachemann said. "He's got a live arm."

Which is why the Angels picked up James in a trade with the Dodgers in 1993.

James had been a confused pitcher in the Dodger chain. He spent three years on their 40-man roster. When he was in spring training, they used him as a reliever in spring training. When he went to the minors, he was a starter.

"It got confusing," James said. "I never got comfortable with either."

There was no such problems with the Angels. Last season, James went to the bullpen after 10 starts with triple-A Vancouver. He finished with eight saves.

His performance in spring training earned him a spot in the Angel bullpen. But that was easy. He had extra incentive.

The surfing is a lot better here than in Vancouver.

"I try to be a little careful during the season," James said. "If it's unbelievable on the reef and low tide, I'll probably think twice about it. If it was the off-season, I'd go out and bust my head open and not worry about it."

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