Locker-room campfires and high heat: Inside the newfound glow of the Angels’ bullpen
Angels relievers Aaron Loup, Ryan Tepera and Archie Bradley have brought new meaning to the phrase “Light that baby up,” the final-out victory call that former play-by-play man Victor Rojas coined as an ode to the halo on the 230-foot tall Big A that illuminates when the Angels win.
After home victories, the three pitchers — and any other players who care to join them — gather around Loup’s corner locker and light a gel canister that is encased in the small, round, stone-and-pebble fire pit that Loup purchased in April.
It’s not exactly the Olympic cauldron — the flame rises only a few inches off the clubhouse carpet — but it has burned brightly this season, the American League West-leading Angels taking a 21-12 record into Friday night’s game at Oakland and going 12-7 at home.
“I can’t take credit for it; it was Archie’s idea,” said Loup, who signed a two-year, $17-million deal last November. “We had a little fake fireplace to begin the season. Then, I thought, surely we can get a real flame, something that at least puts off some heat, because it gets cold in here sometimes.”
The three newcomers, two of whom have played an integral part in the team’s hot start, began the fireside chats to help build camaraderie in the clubhouse, especially among the relievers, whose jobs are volatile by nature.
They’ll hang out after the game, share a cold beverage, talk about what went right, what went wrong, how they attacked certain hitters, what they might do differently next time.
“It’s kind of a cool thing to celebrate a win, you know?” said Tepera, who signed a two-year, $14-million deal in March. “We all enjoy sitting by the fire and having a couple of drinks and reminiscing, talking about whatever, enjoying the company.
“The past couple of years with COVID and stuff, we’ve kind of missed that team morale, getting together. I think everybody looks forward to coming in every day and hanging out with each other, and that’s a big, big part of a winning team.”
The postgame gatherings are not limited to victories. Even after tough losses, the trio usually can be found near Loup’s locker sharing a beer and commiserating — just without the glow of the tiny campfire.
“We have a good group of guys with some good arms and different looks coming out of the pen, which is always good, because you can mix them with certain batters.”
— Ryan Tepera
“The biggest thing about this game is having some consistency — whether you win or lose, you try to stay as steady as you can,” Loup said. “You play 162 games, you’re gonna lose at least 60 of them, which is a lot of games, and some losses hurt a little more than others.
“But you have to learn to treat every day the same. Or at least I try to. My thing has always been, all right, you have a bad game, you lose, give yourself 10 to 15 minutes at your locker to be pissed off, do what you have to do, and then turn the page and move on to the next day.”
The Angels spent $93 million last winter — $58 million to retain closer Raisel Iglesias for four years — to bolster an unreliable bullpen that ranked 24th in baseball with a 4.59 ERA, 25th in WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and converted 39 of 65 save opportunities last season.
Their current bullpen ERA of 3.49 ranked 15th on Thursday, middle of the pack but much better than last season. Relievers ranked second in WHIP (1.05) and walks (34) and eighth in batting average against (.211). They converted nine of 12 save opportunities.
Iglesias has been dominant, going 1-0 with a 2.31 ERA and seven saves in 13 games, striking out 15, walking three and yielding six hits in 11-2/3 innings. The left-handed Loup is 0-2 with a 1.93 ERA in 14 games, striking out 15, walking two and giving up six hits in 14 innings.
Tepera, a right-hander, is 1-0 with a 2.35 ERA in 14 games, striking out 12, walking six and yielding six hits in 15-1/3 innings. Bradley, who signed a one-year, $3.75-million deal in March, is on the injured list, but right-handers Oliver Ortega and Jimmy Herget have helped solidify the middle innings.
“The bullpen is used more in today’s game, and I’ve always said that you have to be able to use everybody,” Loup said. “If you don’t have the confidence to throw, say, your lowest guy on the totem pole in a big situation, then we’re not going to be any good.”
“Putting guys in different situations is always about trust. The more people that gain your trust, the better chance you have of staying strong all year.”
— Joe Maddon, Angels manager, on what makes a good bullpen
Ortega, the 25-year-old right-hander with a 95-mph fastball and 82-mph curve, has carved out a higher-leverage, multi-inning role by going 1-1 with a 1.62 ERA in his first 11 games, striking out 12 and walking six in 16-2/3 innings.
Manager Joe Maddon considers Ortega a “really good bridge” between the starter and the back-end trio of Iglesias, Loup and Tepera, like “the George Washington, the Verrazzano-Narrows, the Tappan Zee,” he said.
Herget, the bespectacled, rail-thin right-hander with the funky delivery and adjustable arm slots, has joined Ortega in the bridge club, using his 90.5-mph sinker, 81-mph slider and 75-mph curve to go 1-0 with a 3.86 ERA in his first 13 games, striking out 18 and walking one in 16-1/3 innings.
Herget, who signed with the Angels last August, has a 1.69 ERA in 12 games since his rocky Angels debut, when he gave up four runs and four hits in one-third inning of a 13-6 loss to Houston on April 8.
He fooled Francisco Mejia so badly with a sweeping curve on Wednesday that the pitch nearly hit the Tampa Bay batter in the groin as he swung through it for strike three.
“We have a good group of guys with some good arms and different looks coming out of the ‘pen, which is always good, because you can mix them with certain batters,” Tepera said. “We’ve got Jimmy just kind of slinging it and making the ball dance a little bit. Ortega has been really good.
“This is kind of an old-school mentality, but I’m a true believer that you have to use every man in the ‘pen to be a winning team and keep guys healthy, to have your guys fresh when it really matters in September, when you’re going to make a playoff push.”
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Long man Jaime Barria (1.98 ERA in 13-2/3 innings) has pitched well in five games. Erstwhile setup man Mike Mayers (5.06 ERA in 11 games) still is trying to find his footing. Austin Warren (broken nose), Bradley (abdominal strain) and left-hander Jose Quijada (oblique strain) should add depth when they return from injury.
“It’s so important to the group,” Maddon said of the role his middle relievers play. “The good teams I’ve had, the playoff teams, have had guys like that who can hold small leads or deficits and give you a chance to remain in the game and do what you need to do toward the end.
“You don’t know your bullpen until a month into the season. It takes a month to really watch them and figure out what they can do. Then, the trust factor builds. Putting guys in different situations is always about trust. The more people that gain your trust, the better chance you have of staying strong all year.”
And the better the bullpen pitches, the more Loup’s locker will be lit.
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