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The end justifies their means

Times Staff Writer

As Angels fans look ahead to the playoffs, some could be tempted to look for a chink in the armor, a way the team with the best record in baseball, the one with the 14-game lead in its division, could falter once it gets to the postseason.

Their gaze might fall on the bullpen beyond Francisco Rodriguez, the major league saves leader with 45, and wonder what might happen if he flames out.

After all, Rodriguez has already appeared in 54 games, the most of any American League closer. And the only left-hander in the bullpen hasn’t had all that much success against left-handed hitters. And a right-hander who was supposed to share setup duties has been a disappointment.

However, the evidence presented Sunday in a 4-3 victory that gave the Angels their first home sweep of the New York Yankees in more than a decade suggests that those last few innings are in capable hands.

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Rodriguez tire?

He struck out the side in the ninth to pick up the win.

And pitching a scoreless eighth before him was Jose Arredondo, a rookie right-hander who has been everything the Angels hoped he’d be since he was called up in May.

Using an effective fastball and split-finger pitch, Arredondo has an earned-run average of 0.95 in 38 innings with 31 strikeouts and 12 walks. But he doesn’t have playoff experience. Can his success during the season carry over to October?

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“We would anticipate that he would be very strong for us toward the end of the year, but a lot remains to be seen,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “He hasn’t shown any indication of wilting and he’s worked to stay strong all summer, so that’s a good sign.”

Besides, having playoff experience isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for postseason success.

Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon pitched four scoreless innings in the American League division series against the Chicago White Sox in 2005, his first big league season.

The same year, Bobby Jenks pitched eight playoff innings and gave up two runs as a Chicago White Sox rookie, and even got the save in the 1-0 win that finished off the team’s World Seres sweep of Houston.

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And then there is the Angels’ own Rodriguez, who after joining the team late in the regular season pitched 18 2/3 postseason innings, giving up four earned runs and striking out 28 to help the Angels win the 2002 World Series.

“Jose is gaining experience every day and doing a good job now, and sometimes young talent without experience outplays veteran talent with experience just with stuff. You have to be in tune with that, also,” Scioscia said. “Jose doesn’t have a lot of experience, but his stuff is electric, and in every situation, he’s done a good job.”

The other main setup man for the Angels does have postseason experience. Scot Shields has a 2.80 ERA in 45 innings this season, but there’s a red flag -- August is typically the time of year the right-hander begins to struggle.

His career ERA in August is 4.38 -- his highest of any month -- with September coming in second at 3.28. Last year in August, Shields gave up 13 runs in only 11 innings, and things didn’t get much better in September when he gave up nine runs in 11 2/3 innings.

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“When I would get into a slump I think I tried too hard to get out of it instead of just trusting my stuff,” Shields said. “That was definitely something I learned last year and it helped out in regaining my form pretty quick after that.”

If Shields were to break down again this year, it would expose another potential problem in the Angels’ bullpen -- the lack of a left-handed specialist. Left-handed batters are hitting .299 this season against Darren Oliver, the lone lefty in the bullpen.

However, the absence of a dominant southpaw might not be a major problem if the two right-handed setup men can continue their success against left-handed hitters, who are hitting .171 against Shields and .148 against Arredondo.

“It’s always nice to look on paper and look for balance, but you’re not going to eject one of the great power arms we have on the right side just to fit a lefty in,” Scioscia said. “Our righties get lefties out, that’s fine.”

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“Shields has a deceptive kind of motion,” said Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi, a left-handed hitter. “He crossfires. He steps and throws across his body, [he’s] got a good breaking ball and he locates well. He’s got a good fastball. He has that ability to start it at your hip and run it back over the plate. He’s got a little different look . . .

“Arredondo’s still new for a lot of us, kind of how K-Rod [Rodriguez] was when he came up. Nobody really knew much about him. Good fastball, great stuff, and not afraid to challenge you.”

Despite Oliver’s struggles against left-handers, Scioscia called him the “unsung hero” of the bullpen. In a mostly middle-relief role, Oliver has a 3.28 ERA in 49.1 innings.

“He’s been able to bridge so many of the middle to late innings,” Scioscia said. “He’s really thrown the ball well this year and he has the ability to give us some length and maybe go three innings.”

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The success of Oliver, Arredondo and Shields has also helped compensate for the struggles of Justin Speier, who has a 4.88 ERA, two points higher than last year, and has been unable to seize upon the expanded role that was planned for him this season.

As for Rodriguez, Scioscia says he keeps a watchful eye on how often he uses him. Rodriguez rarely pitches on three consecutive days, and lately the Angels’ success has given him plenty of rest -- he’s made only three appearances this month.

“He’s had his days off,” Scioscia said. “We’ve spread out his workload a little bit and he’s maintained his strength.”

At this point in the season, the manager added, everyone in the bullpen has a specific role and not much will change down the stretch.

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“Once you evaluate a bullpen and make the decision that there are roles to create down there, sometimes roles are very sketchy, tough to define,” Scioscia said. “But once you define them, you want to keep them in their little bubble, keep them from wearing down, getting overexposed, pitching too much, and see if there’s a role change during the year.

“The important thing is you have to keep them in their roles and in their bubbles.”

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chris.hine@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sharp relief

Where the Angels bullpen ranks in selected categories in the 14-team American League:

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*--* CATEGORY STAT AL ERA 3.78 7th Saves 47 1st Wins 16 10th Hits per 9 innings 8.73 10th Walks per 9 innings 3.44 1st Strikeouts per 9 innings 7.37 7th Fewest blown saves 10 4th *--*

Source: baseballreference.com

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UP NEXT

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vs. Seattle

at Angel Stadium

* Tonight, 7, FSNW

* Wednesday, 7 p.m., FSNW

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