Torii Hunter, Scott Kazmir lead Angels past White Sox
Brian Fuentes returned to the scene of the crime Sunday.
After all, the mound at Angel Stadium has been an unforgiving place for him lately, with the left-hander blowing a save and losing a game in his last three appearances there. So when the Angels went to the ninth inning protecting a one-run lead against the Chicago White Sox, Manager Mike Scioscia left his closer in the bullpen.
One batter later Fuentes came on in place of Kevin Jepsen to douse Chicago’s final rally in the Angels’ 3-2 victory. Then it fell to Scioscia to try to put out a smoldering controversy.
“He’s our closer,” Scioscia said of Fuentes. “The situation today, when Jepsen starts the ninth, it’s purely matchups. The matchup leading off the ninth was good for us.
“And as soon as those lefties started coming off the bench, it was a good time for Brian.”
That’s a new approach for Scioscia. When Francisco Rodriguez saved a record 62 games for the Angels last season, only seven of those came in games in which he pitched less than an inning. And in Troy Percival’s last full season as the Angels’ closer in 2004, only four of his 33 saves lasted fewer than three outs.
But that was then and this is now. And rather than having a lockdown closer, the Angels are streaking toward the playoffs with doubt at the back of their bullpen.
“If a pitcher’s really searching for something and it looks like it’s going the wrong way and you do have better options, you’re going to consider them at some point,” Scioscia said. “It doesn’t mean that a guy loses a role. We have a lot of confidence in Brian.”
But just in case, Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher had a closed-door meeting with Fuentes on Sunday morning in which they talked mainly about mechanics -- Scioscia’s version -- or about everything but mechanics -- Fuentes’ version.
“We didn’t really talk about certain stuff,” Fuentes said. “It’s just talking about where we need to go and how we’re going to get there.”
More games like Sunday’s would be a good step. Because although Fuentes wasn’t perfect -- he gave up a pinch-hit single to the first batter he faced, bringing the potential winning run to the plate -- he still nailed down his major league-leading 41st save. But it was another tough-luck afternoon for starter Scott Kazmir, who, for the third time as an Angel, pitched well enough to win but didn’t.
Kazmir gave up two first-inning runs, then shut out the White Sox the rest of the way before leaving after six innings and 118 pitches. White Sox starter Mark Buehrle (12-8) was equally stingy before Torii Hunter led off the seventh inning with his 21st home run to break a 2-2 tie.
Hunter, who had struck out on a changeup in his previous at-bat, said he was looking for the same pitch again. But when Buehrle threw a cutter instead, Hunter said his instincts did the rest.
“I guessed wrong,” he said. “My mind said something, but my hands said no.”
And that was enough to give the Angels their eighth win in 10 games, lifting them to a season-high 30 games over .500 and moving them closer to their fifth division title in six years.
But was it enough for Fuentes to get all three last-inning outs back?
“That’s really not my place to say,” he said. “That’s Mike’s decision. They just pick up the phone and tell me when I’m going in. I pretty much do what I’m told.”