Angels’ Brian Fuentes wants his speed back

It began as an interview and at one point turned into an apology.

“It was a tough year,” closer Brian Fuentes said of his Angels debut in 2009. “I struggled. I really had to battle through some adversity. I think I could have done better across the board.”

Imagine how much worse Fuentes would have felt had he not led the major leagues in saves.

From a rocky April, to a pair of spectacular meltdowns in late July and that fateful playoff home run to Alex Rodriguez, the 34-year-old Fuentes took a lot of heat last season for a guy who racked up 48 saves.

Among the reasons the left-hander was such a lightning rod for criticism: He didn’t bring the heat.

Not that he is a flame-thrower — with his funky, short- arm delivery, he relies more on deception and location — but the velocity of his fastball, in the 90-93-mph range with Colorado in 2008, fell to 87-90 mph in 2009.

“And it was a big difference,” Fuentes said. “It made me use my off-speed pitches more. When I got ahead of a guy, I didn’t have the ability to put a guy away like I used to.”

Fuentes was slowed by back spasms last spring and struggled, going 0-2 with a 5.30 earned-run average and converting 13 of 16 saves in 20 games through May 30.

He gave up no earned runs and converted 17 straight saves in his next 19 games, lowering his ERA to 2.78, but on consecutive nights in July, Fuentes failed to retire any of the eight batters he faced, giving up six hits and two walks.

Fuentes recovered, converting 18 of his final 20 save opportunities and finishing with a 1-5 record, 3.93 ERA but seven blown saves in 64 games. But after averaging 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 2008, he averaged 7.5 per nine innings in 2009.

After finishing the first half with a 3.23 ERA, 34 strikeouts and nine walks in 30 2/3 innings, he had a 4.81 ERA, 12 strikeouts and 15 walks in 24 1/3 innings of the second half.

“My velocity didn’t really come back, never to what I was accustomed to,” Fuentes said. “I don’t know why, because I felt good.”

He has a clue. During his free-agent winter, Fuentes, who signed a two-year, $17.5-million deal with the Angels, hired a personal trainer for the first time. He got bigger and stronger, but thinks he lost flexibility, which may have affected his delivery. When Fuentes reached back for more, he found little.

And it was reflected on radar-gun readings.

“When you know it’s not coming out as hot as it normally does, you might not be getting the swing and miss on the fastball like you used to, it might be a foul-off now,” Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. “It definitely affects you mentally, especially if you feel good, and I know he felt good. To his admission, it wasn’t coming out as hot as it used to.”

Fuentes scrapped the personal trainer this winter and went back to his regular workout regimen. He hit 91 mph in his second spring outing and he looked sharp on Tuesday, retiring the side in order against San Diego.

“The arm speed is there, there’s a little more quick-twitch in him, and you can tell by some of the swings he’s been getting,” Butcher said. “When a guy’s arm speed is there, the breaking ball is there. The ball is coming out good. The thing about last year is he still got it done. You learn how to pitch without your best stuff.

If Fuentes enters the season with less-than-best stuff, Manager Mike Scioscia will have options.

The Angels signed hard-throwing right-hander Fernando Rodney, the former Detroit closer, veteran setup man Scot Shields is back from knee surgery and hard-throwing right-hander Kevin Jepsen emerged as a late-inning force as a rookie last season.

But Fuentes, who shuttled between the closing and setup roles with the Rockies, does not feel threatened.

“It makes the team stronger,” said Fuentes, whose contract includes a $9-million option for 2011 that is guaranteed if he finishes 55 games in 2010. “My job is to get three outs in the ninth inning. Our bullpen has the ability to take over a game early. To be able to hold a lead from the sixth through ninth inning is huge. We should have a really strong bullpen.”

Scioscia has made it clear that, barring injury, Fuentes will open as closer.

“Brian had a terrific season for us last year,” Scioscia said. “At times, he hit a couple of rough spells, but for the lion’s share of the season, he was terrific. We have some power arms that will be important for us to hold leads late in the game. We’re very comfortable that Brian is going to be that presence at the back of bullpen.”

As shaky as Fuentes was at times last season, he shined for much of the postseason, giving up one earned run and saving three games in 4 2/3 innings against Boston and New York.

But that one run was a crusher. Trying to protect a one-run lead in the 11th inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, Fuentes threw an up-and-away fastball that Rodriguez launched over the short right-field wall for a home run.

The Yankees went on to win in 13 innings and eventually win the series.

Fuentes was heavily criticized for his pitch selection and location to Rodriguez, but the decision did not weigh on him all winter.

“There’s nothing to think about; it’s done,” Fuentes said. “It’s disappointing because we didn’t reach our goal. I could have done more for us to reach our goal. You have to let it go and move on.”

Not that he has much choice.

“That’s the nature of being the closer,” Butcher said. The bottom line is you have to turn the page and get the job done the next day.”