Tuesday, May 4, 2010 Updated: May 5, 11:24 AM ET
Angels finding new ways to lose
By Mark Saxon ESPNLosAngeles.com
BOSTON -- In two of their last three games, the Los Angeles Angels have faced pitchers who would have made most people's short lists for the 2010 Cy Young Award. In the best of times, those are going to be tough days.
And these are far from the best of times. The American League has a merciless way to it and right now it has been grinding the Angels into gravel.
The road meltdown continued with Tuesday night's 5-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox and their ace left-hander, Jon Lester. It was the Angels' fifth straight loss and their worst start to a road trip in seven years. This team is finding creativity in losing, from the embarrassing blowout, a la Monday's 17-8 debacle, to the tense grinder, as in Tuesday's pitchers' duel that exploded all over the Angels late.
The common denominator has been the well-timed blunder. Kevin Jepsen has been one of the Angels' few effective relievers this year, but he picked a sketchy time to lose any feel for where his pitches were going. He walked three batters in the eighth inning to set up Boston's winning rally.
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Juan Rivera seems to save most of his energy for his at-bats anyway, and he picked a bad time to make a halfhearted attempt at a 308-foot fly ball in the eighth inning. Rivera was playing Jeremy Hermida to pull and he had to run a long way after Hermida surprised him by slicing it toward the left-field corner. Rivera misjudged it, thinking it would hit higher off the wall. It hit dirt before short-hopping the famed Green Monster.
That was kind of the decisive moment, seeing as how the bases were loaded with a tie score in the eighth inning. While nobody on the Angels was blaming Rivera for losing the game, nobody came out and said he shouldn't have caught it either.
"Any time a fly ball's hit here to left, you kind of hold your breath," Jepsen said. "Balls down in that corner, when it gets close to the wall ... it is what it is."
Rivera said he set up about 95 feet from the left-field line because Hermida had pulled the ball in his three previous at-bats, including a sharp lineout to Bobby Abreu in the fourth inning. He got close to it before turning his back to the infield to play the carom that turned out to be more like a thud.
"I ran hard, I thought the ball would hit the wall," Rivera said. "I tried to catch the ball."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia and bench/outfield coach Ron Roenicke said they couldn't see the play from the dugout. Both emphasized the difficulty of playing that corner, because of the height of the wall and the pinched space in which to work. Neither seemed in a hurry to look at the replay. There was something of a brouhaha here last September when Rivera declined to dive for a game-winning bloop hit.
Where Monday's loss left the Angels fuming, Tuesday's left them somewhat perplexed.
They actually got a well-pitched game from a starter, Ervin Santana matching Lester pitch for pitch, though not quite inning for inning. And Jepsen has been one of the only Angels relievers who has pitched well.
For Jepsen, it was a strange night where all three of his pitches were missing the mark. After a while, he scrapped the two auxiliary pitches and reduced the game to the basics. It almost worked, when David Ortiz hit into a double play, but Jepsen walked Adrian Beltre on four pitches before Hermida's double.
"Toward the end, I was just trying to throw it down the middle," Jepsen said. "I'm not hitting my spots, so maybe I'll miss the corner. I was trying to do anything I could just to get the ball over the plate."
Where Monday's game simply shined a spotlight on all the Angels' inadequacies, Tuesday actually left them some glimmers of hope. Santana had a sharp slider and made some good pitches to escape jams in the first and second innings, then largely cruised through the seventh. He has been pitching well lately, giving the Angels at least two reliable starters. Overall, they've had the second-worst starting pitching in the league so far.
"Right now, it stings," Scioscia said. "We can't do anything but turn the page to tomorrow's game. That's what I think our team would be good at. We had some good at-bats against Lester, who pitched a great game, and we matched him pitch for pitch. Late in the game, we couldn't get it done."
Reliever Kevin Jepsen walked three batters in the eighth inning Tuesday, setting up Boston's winning rally.
If there has been one area to the Angels' 12-16 start that has been most aggravating to Scioscia, it probably has been the endless succession of walks by the team's relievers. After Jepsen's wild performance Tuesday, Angels relievers have walked a major league leading 59 batters this year.
Trotting in from the bullpen and walking guys is a good way to get released, and there are probably some nervous pitchers in the Angels' bullpen right now. Jepsen isn't one of them. He doubled his walk total (six) and more than doubled his ERA (4.63) with one bad night.
"We've been talking about that for a while," Scioscia said. "Those numbers will change. These guys have better command than that. We need it for sure. Kevin's been pitching great baseball. Tonight obviously didn't go as planned, but he's really been throwing the ball well."
Scene and heard
Boston reliever Hideki Okajima stood waiting patiently next to the Angels' dugout and chatting with Japanese reporters for about 20 minutes Tuesday afternoon. He was waiting for Hideki Matsui to emerge.
It's a ritual when Japanese players face each other. The younger player always goes out of his way to greet the older player, according to Gaku Tashiro of Sankei Sports. In this case, Okajima, 34, is just one year younger than Matsui.
"He has to say, 'Mr. Matsui,'" Tashiro said. "Age is very important in our culture."
Finally, while Scioscia was addressing the media, Okajima visited with Matsui.
Quote of the day
"He'll be unfazed." -- Scioscia on John Lackey facing his former team Wednesday.
Wednesday offers Angels fans a head-to-head comparison of Lackey (2-1, 4.50 ERA) with the man who replaced him in the Angels' rotation, Joel Pineiro (2-3, 5.76). Despite their numbers, both pitchers have made some excellent starts this season. Lackey has pitched well in four of his five starts, but one blowout against Tampa Bay inflated his ERA.
Pineiro was cruising along until he had to face a couple of teams for the second time. The New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers pounded Pineiro in his last two starts.
Lackey spent his first eight seasons in Anaheim before signing for five years and $82.5 million in Boston. The Angels replaced him by acquiring Pineiro for two years and $16 million. Pineiro pitched half a season for the Red Sox in 2007 before they traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.