Commentary

Angels hope veterans can steady 'pen

Updated: April 5, 2012, 1:47 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

It's hard to be a popular reliever. You almost have to reach the stature of the greatest, guys like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, to get a little love.

Jason Isringhausen
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesJason Isringhausen had two stints with the Mets, who converted him into a reliever.

If you're good, you get to go home without answering any questions. If you're bad, everybody -- hundreds of thousands of fans and 24 teammates -- remembers it for a week. It can take a little while to get used to the psychological beatings.

When the Los Angeles Angels open the 2012 season Friday amid the booming drumbeat of expectations, one little corner of their clubhouse will be a reservoir of worry. Did they do enough to make their bullpen championship-caliber?

General manager Jerry Dipoto reinvented the offense by adding Albert Pujols and Chris Iannetta. He added another brick to a strong rotation by signing C.J. Wilson. But the only tweaks he made to a bullpen that led the American League in blown saves was to add a pair of guys pushing 40 whose fastballs have seen better days.

Dipoto clearly is hoping LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen, both 39, can benefit enough from the 1,497 major league games they've pitched to make up for right arms that have taken plenty of beatings.

And, who knows? Perhaps the ways in which they go about their jobs will rub off on second-year closer Jordan Walden, who has plenty of fastball but a questionable ability to cope with the rigors of his job.

Between them, Hawkins and Isringhausen could write a book, but for now, here is a combined memoir of two of the most veteran relievers in major league baseball.

June 19, 1999

Virtually every relief pitcher envisioned himself as a starter. There's typically more money, more glory and more fame to be found as the guy listed in the pitching probables than the one coming in to fix that guy's problems.

For Isringhausen, the decision was made for him. His right elbow, coming off its second ligament-replacement surgery, started aching after 60 or 70 pitches. His team, the New York Mets, lost a game to the St. Louis Cardinals that night and Isringhausen, once a neon-bright prospect, couldn't get out of the third inning. The Mets told him he was moving to the bullpen.

It meant swallowing all his ambitions of being the next Tom Seaver, but it wasn't long before Isringhausen realized he liked it.

"You know coming in the next day, no matter how it went, you'd have a chance to do it again," Isringhausen said.

March 2000

The decision was made for Hawkins, too, but not by his arm -- by his manager. As the Minnesota Twins were getting ready to break camp that season, manager Tom Kelly summoned Hawkins -- who had gone 26-44 in five seasons as a starter -- and told him he was now a reliever.

[+] EnlargeLaTroy Hawkins
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesSince leaving the Cubs in 2005, LaTroy Hawkins has played for seven teams.

"He said, 'What are your thoughts on it,'" Hawkins said. "I said, 'I've got no thoughts. I'll try to be the best reliever I can be.' I called my grandfather and said, 'What do you think about it?' He was like, 'Well, you can either like it or not. You can like it in Triple-A or pitch in the big leagues,' so that was the turning point for me."

Twelve years and nearly $40 million later, Hawkins thanks his grandfather for the wisdom.

April 10, 2000

The first time Hawkins walked off a mound tasting the bitter residue that often comes with pitching in relief, he was at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium and Johnny Damon had just ended a game by homering off him in the ninth inning.

Thinking back, he couldn't remember the details.

"After a while, all the years become one," Hawkins said.

Maybe that's why he has been a good reliever for so long. He was surrounded by veterans such as Rick Aguilera and Eddie Guardado, who taught him how to let the disappointment go, to let it dissolve with the outgoing breath as soon as possible.

"You can't let what happened yesterday affect what's going to happen today," Hawkins said.

Aug. 8, 2000

Isringhausen's transition was eased by quick success. He didn't blow a save for nearly two full seasons. He saved all nine opportunities he had in 1999 and, after flip-flopping between setup and the closer's role in 2000, he didn't blow one until August of that year.

Oh, but that doesn't mean he didn't have a spectacular failure.

Barry Zito had out-pitched Roger Clemens and the A's took a delicate 3-2 lead into the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium, both teams clawing for playoff position. In came Isringhausen with Bernie Williams in the on-deck circle and David Justice standing on the top step with a bat in his hand.

Isringhausen threw two pitches. Williams yanked an inside fastball over the right-field wall and Justice reached for a low-and-away fastball and hit a towering drive over the center-field wall. He threw two official pitches and his team slinked off into the New York night.

The next day, the back page of the New York Post read, "Bang! Bang! You're dead."

"That was actually comical," Isringhausen said. "I told the reporters, 'I'm well-rested for tomorrow.'"

Oct. 10, 2001

The scene was similar 14 months later when Isringhausen made his first appearance on the road in a playoff game.

Yankee Stadium was rocking, nearly 57,000 fans sensing a chance for their swaggering, veteran team to take advantage of the jitters of a younger Oakland team. Isringhausen got in the game and was so visibly nervous, Jason Giambi called time and jogged over from first base.

"Jason asked me if I was all right and I said, 'I can't feel my legs,'" Isringhausen said. "We just kind of laughed and that cracked the ice a little bit. When you're just out there by yourself, looking around at Yankee Stadium, you can get caught up in the moment pretty quick."

Isringhausen got back in his body, shut the door and Oakland would take home a 2-0 series lead only to fumble it away at home. It was Isringhausen's last appearance that season.

Oct. 6, 2002

Hawkins was getting his first feel for playoff baseball, his Twins and the A's playing the final game of their best-of-five series in Oakland. He had been summoned in the eighth inning to a one-run game with a runner on and two outs, the best hitter in the game coming up.

Miguel Tejada won the AL MVP award after that season, but Hawkins overpowered him at a critical moment. He threw four straight fastballs, Tejada swinging through a 98 mph pitch up in the zone to strike out and end the inning.

"Hardest I ever threw in my life," Hawkins said.

It was a lesson in following a scouting report, as much as anything. The Twins had used Hall of Famer Paul Molitor as their advance scout for that series and Molitor thought Tejada was both tired from the long season and too proud to go to a lighter bat. Thus, he advised Twins pitchers to throw a steady diet of fastballs.

"I did a little fist pump, the only time I ever showed emotion on the mound," Hawkins said.

2004

No matter how well you pitch as a reliever, many people just aren't going to like you. That was what Hawkins took away from one of his few seasons as a closer, when the Chicago Cubs undershot lofty expectations and finished third.

He felt singled out by passionate Cubs fans ravenous for success. He had 25 saves and a 2.63 ERA, but he had to listen to his name be dragged through the mud on talk radio when he drove to Wrigley Field.

"We blew some games and fans like to pick on the one guy who blew the game, but we win as a team and lose as a team," Hawkins said. "You get to a point where you can't let people from outside dictate how you feel about yourself. The faster you learn, the better."

Past eight years

Isringhausen had some brilliant years in St. Louis and helped pitch the Cardinals to two pennants and a World Series title. Along the way, though, the pain at time was almost too much to bear. In addition to his always fragile elbow, he had hip and shoulder discomfort.

When you're paid millions to get a few outs a night, 80 percent of the world doesn't want to hear about your problems and the other 20 percent is glad you have them, to paraphrase Lou Holtz.

"You just kind of keep that stuff to yourself," Isringhausen said. "You've just got to go out and do your job. I wasn't able to do it the way I wanted to, but no excuses, part of baseball."

Hawkins has had better luck with injuries, but he has had to get used to the itinerant life of a free-agent reliever. Since leaving the Cubs in 2005, he has played for seven teams. He said he still cares as much as he did in those first few relief appearances for the Twins. He has just learned to hide it better.

"If you act the fool on the field and melt down, then you're soft, so you get killed right there," Hawkins said. "You can't wear your emotions on your sleeve."

For relievers, including Walden, that's probably for the best anyway.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.