Fuentes a quiet craftsman on the mound
Closer has shown a workmanlike diligence for Angels
NEW YORK -- Thirty minutes later, most of the adrenaline having worn off, Brian Fuentes stood at his locker and called it a "Wiffle ball moment."
He was thinking about a kid in Modesto, Calif., in the heart of the state, playing ball with friends in the yard and dreaming about getting the last out or hitting one out to win a Major League playoff game.
The moment of truth had arrived for Fuentes in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Angel Stadium. All eyes were on the long lefty with the unorthodox delivery as he took Nick Swisher to a full count with the bases loaded and the Angels clinging to a 7-6 lead with their season on the line.
"It's the biggest moment you could have in a game," Fuentes said.
In an offhand manner, Fuentes explained how he'd been able to control his emotions well enough to throw a fastball right where it needed to be, a strike down and in.
"You just focus on what you have to do -- and do it," he said.
Swisher popped it up, shortstop Erick Aybar squeezed it, and two titans moved on to the Bronx to continue an enthralling series. Hopefully, they'll find conditions favorable enough Saturday night to stage Game 6 at Yankee Stadium.
"I knew what I had to do," Fuentes said. "I knew the consequences. You just do what you've got to do -- get that last out."
He put his fastball in close to a perfect spot. The pressure was immense. After getting two quick outs, on Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira, he'd walked Alex Rodriguez intentionally, walked Hideki Matsui unintentionally on a full count and hit Robinson Cano with a sweeping breaking ball.
Swisher had battled back from an 0-2 hole to take it full, as he so often does, and he was looking to be a hero.
"He wasn't able to do what he wanted to do with that pitch," Fuentes said, "and we got out of it."
Fuentes is matter-of-fact, no frills, nothing fancy whatsoever. He's a craftsman, a gun for hire, and he'd done what he is paid so handsomely to do. It just happened that a whole world of baseball fans was watching, hanging on every pitch.
The veteran lefty didn't make it easy on himself, but he's not that kind of closer. He doesn't come in dealing 98-mph heat, pumping gas past hitters. He relies on deception with his delivery, location, changing speeds, keeping hitters guessing and, hopefully, off balance.
Fuentes is a pitcher; a good one, good enough to have saved 51 games this season for the Angels -- 48 in the regular season and now three in postseason play.
He has navigated 4 2/3 postseason innings, allowing one hit -- a large one, by A-Rod, that sent Game 2 into extra innings. That came on an 0-2 fastball Fuentes left in the big man's wheelhouse, and Rodriguez didn't miss it. The Yankees went on to win in 13 innings, sweeping the first two and putting the Angels in a deep hole.
In the aftermath of that demoralizing loss, Fuentes stood at his locker and explained to wave after wave of media how he'd meant to get the pitch up higher, out of the zone, but missed -- and paid dearly. He's a stand-up guy, one of the things that convinced the Angels he was the right guy to replace Francisco Rodriguez.
It has been a long, difficult season for all the Angels. The Nick Adenhart tragedy cannot be understated. It impacted everyone. A pitcher with serious talent and an endearing nature, Adenhart was on his way to great things. His loss left an enormous void.
Fuentes had signed as a free agent, wanting to come back to the Golden State. He found in the Angels an ideal partner with Rodriguez walking away, to New York, after his record-smashing 2008 season.
From the beginning, Fuentes made it clear he wasn't here to replace K-Rod, that he was a different kind of pitcher and certainly a different type of person.
K-Rod is flamboyant, spectacular, a show. Fuentes is quiet, introspective, serious-minded. It shows in his work. There are no histrionics, no gestures, nothing but hard, solid work.
"I'm not really much of a media person," Fuentes said. "I'm just not real comfortable with that. I can't imagine how Torii Hunter does everything he does."
Fuentes had a lot of adjustments to make. The setup cast in front of him kept changing. Scot Shields, one of the best, had knee surgery in late May and was gone for the season. Jose Arredondo couldn't find the stuff that made him so good in 2008 and was on and off the staff. Justin Speier, with his off-center sense of humor, couldn't throw enough strikes and was released.
Jason Bulger emerged, and so did Kevin Jepsen. Darren Oliver was rock steady. Matt Palmer was Mr. Fix-it, coming to the aid of the rotation, then the bullpen. Others came along and helped patch things together, but it was a work in progress from April into October.
The relief unit has had its down periods, an inconsistency that has been reflected in the postseason. After six high-caliber performances overall, the bullpen has been banged around the past two games.
But it forges on, with the steady closer waiting to take care of the last three outs.
"We know," said Jepsen, "that if we get the ball to Brian, we'll be in good shape. He's had a great season."
Brian Fuentes knows who he is and who he isn't. He isn't Mariano Rivera -- or Francisco Rodriguez.
He's a good closer, a conscientious craftsman, on a team with a chance to win a World Series.
It's the stuff of a kid's dreams.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.