The Angels lost only six games when leading after seven innings in all of 2008, the bullpen trio of Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo usually dominating the final frames.
A mere 48 games into 2009, the Angels have matched that inglorious mark.
Closer Brian Fuentes suffered his third blown save Saturday night, giving up a three-run home run to Jose Lopez in the ninth inning, and Yuniesky Betancourt’s sacrifice fly in the 10th pushed the Seattle Mariners to a 4-3 victory at Angel Stadium.
The latest in a string of bullpen meltdowns dropped the Angels 5 1/2 games behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West and cost starter Matt Palmer, who threw seven shutout innings, a chance to improve to 6-0.
“It’s deflating for the whole team, not just me,” Palmer said. “You don’t like it when that happens, but I wouldn’t set it up any other way. We have a great closer, one of best in the game. . . .
“We have great relievers. I believe in them, just like they believe in me. If I had it to do over again, I’d do it the same exact way. Things happen. You can’t win every single game.”
Fuentes struggled for much of April, but since his last blown save, at Yankee Stadium on May 1, he gave up one earned run and six hits in 9 2/3 innings of 10 appearances, converting eight of eight save opportunities.
The Angels gave the left-hander a three-run cushion when they scored twice in the eighth, tacking on to the lead Erick Aybar provided with a run-scoring double against starter Felix Hernandez in the seventh.
Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter singled with one out in the eighth inning, Guerrero taking third on Hunter’s hit and Hunter advancing on center fielder Franklin Gutierrez’s throwing error.
Kendry Morales was walked intentionally to load the bases, Maicer Izturis hit a run-scoring groundout, and Gary Matthews Jr. hit a run-scoring single to right field. Matthews rounded first too aggressively after his hit and was tagged out on a back-door play to end the inning.
Adrian Beltre started Seattle’s rally against Fuentes with a one-out single to center field, Russell Branyan hit a two-out single to left field, and Lopez drove a 1-and-1 fastball over the left-field wall for a 3-3 tie.
Fuentes left without speaking to reporters, leaving Manager Mike Scioscia to explain his performance.
“He had trouble putting his off-speed pitches where he wanted to,” Scioscia said. “That put a lot of pressure on him to get his fastball in good spots, and he wasn’t able to do that against Lopez.”
Wladimir Balentien doubled to lead off the 10th inning against Arredondo, took third on Gutierrez’s sacrifice bunt and scored the winning run on Betancourt’s sacrifice fly to left.
Guerrero singled to lead off the bottom of the 10th, but Hunter grounded into a double play -- the fourth of the game for the Angels -- and Morales flied out.
Palmer threw another gem, giving up four hits, striking out five and walking none, and for that, the 30-year-old rookie got a pat on the back and a shove out the rotation door.
Though Palmer is 5-0 with a 4.06 earned-run average, the right-hander will be moved to the bullpen to clear a rotation spot for Kelvim Escobar, who is expected to start Saturday in Detroit. Not that Palmer minds.
“If they want me to sit on the bench and pick pine out of my butt, I will do it,” Palmer said. “Anything I can do to help the team, I will do. It’s not my job to think about [whether I belong in the rotation]. It’s my job to perform, that’s it.”