Angels’ Kevin Jepsen is making the cut

Reporting from Detroit

It was a situation in which Angels Manager Mike Scioscia last season would have been hesitant to use Kevin Jepsen.

Not anymore.

The bases were loaded with one out in the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians on Monday night, and due up were left-handed sluggers Travis Hafner and Russell Branyan. Scioscia popped out of the dugout and pointed to the bullpen with conviction, summoning the right-handed Jepsen, who in 2009 — his first full season — yielded a .373 average to left-handed batters.

The 25-year-old quickly struck out Hafner, finishing him off with a nasty cut fastball, and got Branyan to ground out to shortstop to preserve a four-run lead in an eventual 5-2 Angels victory.

Jepsen is armed with a 96-mph fastball and a sharp curve, but it’s the refinement of — and confidence in — his cut fastball, the weapon of choice for Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, that has led to Jepsen’s dramatic improvement against lefties.

In 13 appearances this season, Jepsen, who began throwing the cutter in the middle of last season, has allowed four hits in 25 at-bats against lefties for a .160 average, striking out seven and walking one.

He enters Friday night’s game against the Detroit Tigers with a 1.80 earned-run average, 11 strikeouts and three walks in 10 innings, emerging as one of the Angels’ most reliable relievers.

“His fastball-curve combination is really good,” Scioscia said, “but the cutter has given him a different dimension. It looks like a mistake fastball and then disappears.… His stuff plays against anybody, left or right.”

The cutter looks like a fastball out of the pitcher’s hand but has a little less velocity and a late horizontal and slightly downward break that hooks away from right-handed hitters and toward the hands of lefties. At its best, the cutter will shatter bats like no other pitch, as evidenced by the trail of kindling left in Rivera’s wake for 16 years.

“Yeah, they’ll swing like it’s going to be over the plate, and then the pitch is in on their hands,” Jepsen said of Rivera, among the game’s greatest closers.

“It’s crazy how he does it with one pitch. He’ll get it in there, and then he’ll back-door it [to the outside corner]. He’s definitely the master of the art with that cutter.”

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jepsen is happy to be a painter’s apprentice. His cutter is not in Rivera’s class, but it doesn’t have to be, not with the overpowering fastball and curve he has.

“He’s definitely not a one-dimensional guy,” pitching coach Mike Butcher said. “He has three-plus pitches, a nice mix that he can use in certain counts. The biggest thing is command.”

Butcher taught Jepsen the cutter last May, but the young pitcher was hesitant at first to use it against lefties and reluctant to use it at all in key situations. Besides, his fastball-curve combo was working just fine against right-handers, who hit a measly .208 off Jepsen last season.

But Jepsen’s mission in spring training was to gain better command of the cutter and use it more against lefties. A month into the season, it has emerged as a go-to pitch.

“Last year I used the cutter mostly against righties, but I’ve been throwing it a lot more to lefties,” Jepsen said. “I can use the other side of the plate, and it keeps them off my fastball more. Last year, lefties were getting on the fastball more easily.”

Last season, Jepsen went 6-4 with a 4.94 ERA in 54 games but was far more effective in the second half, when he went 4-2 with a 3.11 ERA in 34 games.

And he was so tough on righties that by September, Scioscia would use Jepsen in the eighth inning and leave him in to face a right-handed batter to start the ninth before turning to left-handed closer Brian Fuentes.

But that inability to contain lefties weighed heavily.

“Yeah, I wasn’t happy with the way lefties hit me last year,” Jepsen said. “I want to be that guy who, when I’m in the game, they’re not worried about lefties coming up.”

While Jepsen has dominated lefties this season, righties have five hits in 13 at-bats for a .385 average against him, a small sample size but somewhat startling.

“I’m not too worried,” Jepsen said. “I don’t really look at numbers like that. The important thing is whether I’m putting up zeros and getting guys out. Each outing, I’m trying to get better.”

The rest of the league has noticed. Jepsen may not be one of baseball’s big-name relievers, but his reputation is growing, based on the groans in the Indians’ dugout when he came into the game Monday night.

“It was another situation where we had guys on base, but they brought in that guy who has the good stuff, Jepsen,” said Cleveland center fielder Grady Sizemore, who struck out against Jepsen on Wednesday. “He was throwing hard with a hard breaking ball. That’s a tough at-bat.”

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