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Is Kevin Jepsen the Reliever the LA Angels Have Been Looking for?

Johnathan KronckeCorrespondent IJuly 8, 2009

PHOENIX - JUNE 28:  Releif pitcher Kevin Jepsen #65 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the major league baseball game at Chase Field on June 28, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Angels defeated the Diamondbacks 12-8.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have never had a bullpen this bad—at least not in this decade.

From 2002-2004, the Angels' bullpen lead the American League in ERA, and in nine years it has never been worse than eighth.

As of July 7, the Angels' bullpen ranks 14th—good for dead last in the American League—with an astonishing 5.02 ERA. Only Cleveland's bullpen has been tagged with more losses.

So naturally, the savior of this beleaguered bunch should be a pitcher sporting a slim 9.39 ERA.

But, as unlikely as it seems, Kevin Jepsen may turn out to be the answer.

Over the last three months, the Angels have paraded an endless stream of mediocre pitchers and unseasoned rookies to the mound. Precious few have shown any promise of sticking around long term.

Guys like Rafael Rodriguez, Fernando Rodriguez, and Rich Thompson simply don't look like they have the stuff in their repertoires to last in the bigs.

Jepsen, however, does. 

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His fastball consistently hits 95-96 miles per hour, and is backed up by a surprising curve that ranges from the mid-80's to low 90's. Mix in a knee-buckling change-up and Jepsen would have all he needs to become a star reliever.

The only thing holding him back at this point is his command of those potentially devastating pitches. Jepsen's fastball has incredible life behind it, but it's all for naught if he leaves it over the middle of the dish. 

Any big-leaguer worth his salt can hit a pitch down the middle, no matter how hard it's thrown, and that is reflected in Jepsen's numbers this season.

In 15-1/3 innings pitched, he's surrendered 16 earned runs amidst 25 hits—not the kind of production that inspires hope for the future. But much of this damage was done early on in the season. 

Jepsen gave up an inexcusable 12 runs in just four-and-two-thirds innings over five appearances in April. But in June, he had already started plugging the leaks, giving up six runs on 12 hits through seven innings. 

This month, he's allowed just two hits in four appearances, totaling three-and-two-thirds innings. 

On Monday night against the Rangers, Jepsen pitched a one-two-three ninth inning, including striking out Nelson Cruz on a filthy 90-mph curve that broke well below the knees.

He threw another to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who grounded out weakly to end the game and secure a one-game lead for the Angels in the division.

It's nights like these that give some hope to the possibility of Jepsen becoming a force at the back end of the bullpen. His stuff is solid and when his location is there, he can look absolutely unhittable.

As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, the Angels will likely step up their efforts to find another reliever who can take over the seventh- and eighth-inning duties. But the market is predictably thin on reliable arms.

With so many still in contention, teams are hanging on to quality relievers like grim death. Because of this, Jepsen has become more important to the future of the Angels than ever.

Those days of lights-out performances and shut-down eighth and ninth innings are over. Scot Shields is out for the season, Jose Arredondo has lost his rookie sensation form, and Troy Percival and Francisco Rodriguez have moved on.

Closer Brian Fuentes, the Angels' lone pitching all-star, was anything but during the first month of the season. Since then though, he has taken over the Major League lead in saves, improbably watching his ERA free-fall from 7.88 on May 1 to just 3.38 on July 5. 

In that time, Fuentes has been the only consistent arm in the Angels' bullpen. Seemingly no lead is safe with this team as management searches desperately for relievers who can shepherd games through the later innings.

Jepsen is in perfect position to be that reliever.

Armed with the only two pitches a late-inning reliever needs—a plus-fastball, and a breaking pitch to off-set it—he only lacks consistent command of his location.

If he just learns to keep his pitches down around the knees instead of hanging at the belt, Jepsen could turn into that dominant reliever the Angels so desperately need.

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