Angels win, but Fuentes struggles

CHICAGO -- You could feel the tension rising in the bottom of the ninth inning, the pressure in manager Mike Scioscia's veins growing thicker as the seconds ticked by.

First came the requisite home run by a right-handed power hitter, this time with the Chicago White Sox's Paul Konerko filling the role. Then came another hit, the tying run advancing to second on a passed ball that could have been ruled a wild pitch.

Another bad outing by closer Brian Fuentes threatened to torpedo a crucial Los Angeles Angels win and bury a big step for starting pitcher Joe Saunders, fast on the comeback trail. As it was, Fuentes got Carlos Quentin to pop up -- he just missed it -- and struck out Alexei Ramirez to preserve a 3-2 Angels win Wednesday, picking up his fifth save in the bargain.

That's two struggling hitters at the bottom of a stuck-in-the mud lineup and Fuentes made them look like just that. But pretty soon, this ninth-inning situation is going to blow up all over the Angels' faces.

Say what you will about Fuentes being the league saves leader in 2009 (he was), but good closers don't give up a home run practically every other inning, as Fuentes has this year. They don't give up more hits than innings pitched, as Fuentes has. They don't allow right-handed hitters to hit .296 with four home runs in 27 at-bats, as Fuentes has.

Whether it's stubbornness on Scioscia's part or a sincere belief Fuentes will be his best ninth-inning option in the long run, you could sense a slight shift in the manager's feelings after Wednesday night's game. Scioscia may not be willing to watch too much more of that, not with Fernando Rodney -- Mr. Reliable in Detroit last year -- on hand and pounding the catcher's mitt.

Fuentes is 5-for-7 in save chances and has a 6.52 ERA. Rodney is 5-for-5 in save chances and has a 2.65 ERA. Rodney has given up fewer hits in nearly twice as many innings and hasn't given up a home run since his first appearance of the season.

Rodney struck out Andruw Jones to end the eighth, but it was Fuentes who trotted in for the ninth even though Konerko and fellow right-handed hitter Alex Rios were waiting. Scioscia's official stance is that the closer role is under evaluation but is Fuentes' job for now. Scioscia admits he's not seeing dynamic stuff from his left-handed closer right now.

"The home runs are a result of not being able to command the fastball. Brian's a little different than he was three or four years ago, when he had a little more life on his fastball," Scioscia said.

Neither Rodney nor Kevin Jepsen seems to be having much trouble with his fastball. Rodney's is in the mid-90s and Jepsen's touches 98. The Angels hope Fuentes can get on a roll the way he did leading into his All-Star appearance last year and they're cutting him some slack for having gotten spotty work most of the season. Fuentes insists his confidence is intact. He's not making any claims about his fastball, which rarely touches 91 any more.

He had gone a week without pitching before appearing in the Angels' past two games.

"It's been up and down. I'm not paying much attention to it. I just haven't been happy with how I've pitched overall," Fuentes said. "The main thing is I don't think it's a lack of velocity, it's just a lack of pitch location, really. The walks and home runs have been my nemesis all year."

After battling a good starting pitcher -- John Danks, on a night he had his stuff working -- the Angels would have been feeling a tad sour had Fuentes blown the two-run lead they suddenly built. Torii Hunter smashed a fourth-inning two-run shot off Danks, but they otherwise looked uncomfortable in the batter's box. Hunter's home run was the Angels' only hit through seven innings.

Saunders had his second straight dominant outing and has a 0.81 ERA in his past three starts -- this after starting the season 1-5 with a 7.04 ERA.

"When I was struggling, a bunch of stuff starts going through your mind," Saunders said.

As worried as the fans were in the ninth inning Wednesday, some of the players must have felt a little concerned when Fuentes walked through the bullpen gate and his cleats struck the warning track.

"I know he's trying to make some changes and I think it's going to work for the better. You've just got to always have confidence in your teammates and not bring them down, just kind of uplift them and that's what we're going to do," Hunter said. "He's our teammate."


The Angels still have plenty of slack in their lineup. The table setters have been failing to get on base in droves. Hideki Matsui's spot in the lineup generally has been a black hole, and it has been a bright spot compared to Brandon Wood's.

But the Angels are seeing positive results since Scioscia rearranged the lineup Friday so that Bobby Abreu hits third and Hunter bats fourth. It has ignited both hitters' games, in part because they have felt more comfortable in their roles.

You could see that dynamic at work Wednesday, when Abreu walked twice and scored in front of Hunter's two-run home run, Hunter's third straight day going deep. Abreu has hit third most of his career and he has already said how much he prefers it to the No. 2 hole. Hunter is finding he's a lot more comfortable hitting cleanup than third.

"I'm able to swing the bat a little harder, go out there and have some fun," Hunter said.

Quote of the day

"Actually, if I go to the casino right now, I think I'd hit the jackpot. Put it all on black. I'm just kind of happy and lucky. That's what baseball is all about, being lucky." -- Hunter, on his third straight game with a home run.

Looking ahead

On Thursday night, the Angels face 2007 National League Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, who appears to be settling in with his new team. Peavy struggled for the first month, but is 3-0 with a 2.31 ERA in May.
The Angels' Ervin Santana (2-3, 4.25 ERA) has been their second-most consistent starting pitcher, having gone at least six innings in seven of his eight starts. He's 3-2 with a 4.88 ERA in his career against Chicago.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.