However Angels fans respond the first time new closer Ryan Madson blows a save opportunity, chances are it won’t rattle him.
It took only a short time before he experienced the wrath of Philadelphia’s sports fans, who are notorious for booing Santa Claus, pelting then-St. Louis outfielder J.D. Drew with D-batteries and cheering when Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin lay motionless on the field after suffering a neck injury.
As a Phillies rookie in 2004, Madson reeled off 21 consecutive scoreless innings in relief, lowering his earned-run average to 1.84 in July before giving up a two-run home run to Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa in a loss at home.
“They booed me off the field,” Madson said. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. It doesn’t matter. It’s what have you done for me lately?’ That makes it tough. You can’t rest on your laurels. Every day, they demand that you be at your best regardless of how many days in a row you’ve pitched, how you are physically.”
Over eight seasons in Philadelphia, Madson came to a surprising realization about that harsh treatment: He loved it.
“There couldn’t have been a better environment to become the pitcher I am now,” said Madson, who signed a one-year, $3.5-million deal with the Angels. “The fans might have been critical, but that’s good. You don’t want to go out there not caring.”
Though it took Madson years to polish his mechanics — no easy task for someone 6 feet 6 and 210 pounds — there is still a hard edge to the 32-year-old right-hander who sat out 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
He was a bit of a prankster in Philadelphia but drew a firm line between fun and his job. Some of his best work came in times that required laser-sharp focus, like the run-up to the Phillies’ 2008 World Series title, when Madson gave up one earned run in 14 innings, struck out 17 and walked one in a September filled with must-win games.
Madson said those Phillies playoff teams “played the game right, played it hard,” and often with a chip on their shoulder, an attitude he hopes to see from the Angels, who have gone three seasons without making the playoffs and failed to live up to World Series expectations in 2012.
“What I’m hoping for is not only a fun team but one that is eager, hungry and wants to prove how good it is,” Madson said. “In 2008, we were dedicated to proving everybody who doubted us wrong.”
Negative media can be good, he added: “All the ‘Ha-ha, yeah-yeah, this team is great’ stuff, that affects the players. They get comfortable. I want to feel that sense of urgency to go above and beyond expectations.”
How Madson recovers from elbow surgery — he is throwing off the front of a mound and is on track to be ready for the season opener — will help determine whether the Angels meet or fall short of expectations.
Madson has a 94-mph fastball and a superb changeup. If he regains his 2011 form, when he had a 4-2 record with a 2.37 ERA and 32 saves in 34 chances, struck out 62 and walked 16 in 602/3 innings and held left-handers to a .198 average, he will improve a bullpen that had an American League-worst 47 blown save opportunities the last two seasons.
“Every bullpen needs an anchorman; this was a big need for us,” General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. “If Ryan is throwing the ball like he can, he’s one of the premier relievers in the game.”
Madson, a Moreno Valley native who grew up an Angels fan, enjoyed occasional stretches of dominance as a setup man from 2004 to 2010, but 2011 was his best “wire-to-wire” season, the culmination of two career-altering moments.
The first was in the spring of 2008, when Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee pulled Madson aside and questioned his commitment, telling him he was cheating himself.
“He said you can keep getting by doing what you’re doing, but why wouldn’t you want to be as good as you can?” Madson said. “I guess he saw more talent.”
Madson, who sat out the final two months of 2007 because of a shoulder strain, got more serious about his strength and conditioning work. He made regular trips to New York City to see Dr. Keith Pyne, whose deep-tissue work, known as active release technique, broke up scar tissue that was limiting Madson’s range of motion.
Madson’s fastball jumped to the 98-mph range in August, and with closer Brad Lidge converting all 48 of his save chances, the Phillies had the lock-down relief required to win the World Series.
“Lidge had a tremendous year, but Madson got us there,” Phillies catching coach Mick Billmeyer said. “He was a huge cog on that team.”
An embarrassing 2010 incident — Madson kicked a chair after a blown save opportunity in San Francisco, breaking a toe and sitting out two months — provided a lesson.
“Instead of punching a cooler and hurting my hand, I thought I’d kick something, so my theory wasn’t bad, but my actions were,” Madson said. “I learned that these things happen, and how you react to failure is a test of character.”
Before 2011, Phillies reliever Danys Baez helped Madson smooth out his mechanics so he could better repeat his delivery. Then, when it became apparent that spring that Madson would win the closer job, minor league pitching coach Rod Nichols pulled him aside.
“He said don’t give the hitters too much credit in the ninth inning, because they’re the ones who need to score, you don’t need to prevent them,” Madson said. “That change of mentality, from trying to stop something from happening to being the aggressor, that’s when it became a whole different game for me.”
Madson’s career nose-dived after 2011. He said he reached an “oral agreement” to sign a four-year, $44-million deal with Philadelphia in November. A few days later, the Phillies signed closer Jonathan Papelbon for four years and $50 million.
Madson settled for a one-year, $8.5-million deal with Cincinnati but suffered a torn elbow ligament last spring. His Angels deal is even smaller, but he can make an additional $3.5 million in incentives for games finished and days on the active roster.
“I don’t have any hard feelings toward Philadelphia or point the finger at anyone,” Madson said. “There’s something to be said for that saying, ‘We can make all the plans we want, and God laughs.’ Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.”