THE Middle MEN
One is living a dream.
One is happy to have a job.
One is learning a new role.
One is fresh from watching history, up close.
Meet the new Angel bullpen. Closer Troy Percival did.
“We needed name tags on opening night,” Percival said. “We had to go around and have introductions.”
Hmmm, Mike Magnante, the left-hander, right?
Al Levine, hurt us as a Texas Ranger last season.
Scott Schoeneweis, hey kid, aren’t you a starter?
Mark Petkovsek, that Mark McGwire watch must have been something.
They couldn’t tell the players without a scorecard, even though they were teammates.
“It was like, ‘Go get ‘em, No. 34,’ ” Percival said, smiling.
There were familiar faces, to be sure--Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Mike Holtz. But the turnover in the bullpen was rapid--made even more so when Holtz was demoted to triple-A over the weekend.
Middle relief might be the most important factor in the American League West, where the scores have resembled those of a slow-pitch softball league--men’s over-30 in the Angels’ case. The men Manager Terry Collins had turned to in the past are not around, or at least not in uniform.
Mike James had elbow and shoulder surgery last summer. Pep Harris joined him on the shelf after off-season elbow surgery. Jason Dickson made it a threesome with shoulder surgery this spring. Allen Watson was allowed, and all but encouraged, to leave as a free agent. Greg Cadaret was released last August. Rich DeLucia was jettisoned during the spring.
So it’s Magnante, Levine, Schoeneweis and Petkovsek.
“Every year I’ve been here, the bullpen keeps turning around and revolving,” Percival said. “It looks like we’ve got a good base right now.”
It had better be.
“When your starter goes deep, you can get the matchups you want from your bullpen,” Collins said.
If a quality start is defined as six innings, then Angel pitchers haven’t been showing a lot of quality. They have failed to make it through the fifth inning in 12 of 32 games this season. There is no way to eliminate the middle men that way.
“If you’re getting wins, then something bad is happening somewhere along the way,” Magnante said. “Either you’ve come in and given up the lead or we were behind when you got in there.”
Petkovsek has more victories (two) than starters Ken Hill, Chuck Finley, Tim Belcher and Steve Sparks.
“The bullpen has done a great job,” Collins said. “We’ve been asking them to do a lot.”
So just who are these guys who have tried to hold things together while the starters have made early exits?
Magnante was signed as free agent after pitching the last two seasons with Houston. It is a dream come true for him because he was an Angel fan while attending Burbank Burroughs High school.
How big a fan?
“I ended up playing with Dave Henderson in Kansas City,” Magnante said “I remember telling him one day that I hated him because of that home run.”
Magnante was an 11th-round pick by the Royals in 1998, after a solid athletic and academic career at UCLA. He earned a degree in Applied Math, which has nothing to do with the strikeout-to-walk ratio.
But he owes his major league success to not learning properly.
“When I was 14, my dad [former Van Nuys High Coach Tony Magnante] was trying to teach me throw a change-up,” Magnate said. “Everything I threw turned over. Finally, he gave up and said, ‘If you’re going to do that, why don’t you just throw a screwball?’ That, in essence, was the beginning.”
The Angels have a vivid memory of Levine, who has rarely stood out in 71 major league games before this season.
Last September, the Angels scored six runs off Rick Helling in the first 1 2/3 innings, knocking out the Rangers’ ace in the middle of a pennant race. Levine entered and didn’t give up a run in 2 1/3 innings. The Rangers came back for a 7-6 victory.
“It was no big deal,” Levine said. “I was out there to do a job.”
He was left out there this spring. He appeared in only seven games and was 2-1 with a 5.23 earned-run average before the Rangers put him on waivers.
The Angels claimed him just before opening day.
“How things progressed through spring training, I kind of saw it coming,” Levine said. “You don’t know what the outcome will be. You just sit there and wait.”
Like Magnante, Levine also got to play for the hometown fans--but for the wrong ones.
He grew up a Cub fan in Chicago but was drafted by the White Sox in the 11th round in 1991. Still, he was in Chicago.
“I was excited at first,” Levine said. “When I got there, it was like everyone wanted something, like tickets. It got old quick.”
There was no more untouchable a player in the Angel system the last few years than Schoeneweis. Many teams asked about him, all were turned away.
So Schoeneweis finally makes it to the major leagues . . . and gets ripped in his first appearance, giving up five runs in one-third of an inning against Cleveland.
“It kind of took the wind out of my sails a little bit,” Schoeneweis said. “You dream about your first time pitching in the major leagues. I didn’t have it scripted out like that in my mind. To give up five runs and get one guy out? But I’m learning.”
A whole new job, actually.
Schoeneweis pitched in 61 minor league games, all as a starter. Now he’s adjusting to the relief role.
“I’ve had to learn everything from scratch,” said Schoeneweis, a third-round pick in 1996. “But they didn’t change me to first base. I’m still a pitcher.
“You have to learn to control your adrenaline when you first come in. You don’t have time to get in the flow or feel your way around.”
Petkovsek was the winning pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 30, when he threw two scoreless innings. But who noticed?
Mark McGwire smacked his 55th home run that night, moving one ahead of Sammy Sosa.
“The whole year was kind of dreamy,” Petkovsek said. “You would be warming up in the bullpen and Mark would be up, so you would stop and enjoy it just like a fan.”
The Angels, though, noticed Petkovsek and picked him up cheap during the off-season. In fact, Collins was stunned when he heard that all Petkovsek cost was minor leaguer Matt Garrick.
So far, it has been a steal of a deal. Petkovsek has been the best of the Angel middle relievers, giving up one run in 14 1/3 innings.
This is nothing new. Petkovsek was 7-4 with 4.77 ERA last season, but he was 4-1 with a 3.92 ERA in 38 relief appearances.
“If I’m starting, that means something kind of went haywire,” Petkovsek said. “Somebody is injured or something. If I stay relieving, that means everything is going good.
“Our goal [in the bullpen] is to get Percival a save. If we get him a save, everything worked great.”