Escobar’s Return Inches Angels Closer to Full Strength

escobarIt had been a long time between appearances for Halo hurler Kelvim Escobar, and I mean a lonnnnnng time.

Try a good 20 months between regular season outings.

His last start for the Halos before tonight’s game was back on September 29th of 2007 against the Oakland A’s. Escobar would go 6 innings en route to his 18th win of the season, giving up 1 run on 5 hits while striking out 4 Oakland batters.

Escobar would end up going 18-7 with a quite respectable ERA of 3.40 in 30 starts for the Angels in 2007. Escobar’s 18 wins tied him for 7th best in the MLB in 2007, while his ERA of 3.40 was good for 8th in the AL. He also struck out 150 opposing hitters, 15th best among American League hurlers.

However, Escobar suffered a torn labrum and was declared out for the duration of the 2008 season due to opting for surgery after initially trying to rehab the shoulder without any type of surgery.

You would think the Angels feel the loss of an 18-game winner in the rotation, wouldn’t you? Escobar was undoubtedly the #2 pitcher the Halos had to offer, behind John Lackey who went 19-9 the previous year and led the American League for the lowest ERA, posting an impressive 3.01 mark.

Ervin Santana struggled mightily and was erratic all season long in 2007, going 7-14 with an ERA of 5.76. Jered Weaver pulled together a record of 13-7 with an ERA just under 4. Bartolo Colon went 6-8 with an ERA over 6 in his final year in Angel red. Joe Saunders burst onto the scene by winning his first 6 starts of 2007 and would finish the year at 8-5.

Who was going to be the guy to fill that void? Fortunately for Mike Scioscia and Angel fans, there was more than 1 answer to that question.

Two Angels again exploded onto the national scene, those two being Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana. Both would go on to be representatives of the Angels on the 2008 American League All-Star team, joining closer Francisco Rodriguez on the team as well. Saunders would go 17-7 with a solid 3.41 ERA in 2008, while Santana would have an incredible bounce-back year by going 16-7 with a 3.49 ERA. Ace John Lackey missed the 1st month of the season, but thanks to Saunders and Santana, the #1 starter void was filled quite valiantly.

All 5 starters in Joe Saunders (17), Ervin Santana (16), Jon Garland (14), John Lackey (12) and Jered Weaver (11) would post 10 or more wins on the season, a feat that no other MLB team could boast. Even phenom reliever Jose Arredondo collected 10 wins as a 7th inning guy.

There’s no doubt that Angel pitching was going to be deep going into 2009.

Santana’s back and true to form. Saunders looks like a legitimate #2 starter, possibly even a #1 in some cases, Lackey’s still got his stuff working and Weaver was continuing to progress and was doing a good job of keeping his pitch count down so he could go deeper into ballgames.

Only one problem.

To start the season, John, Ervin and Kelvim were all injured coming into 2009. You could legitimately say that your #1, #2a, and #2b starters were all out to start your ’09 campaign. That’s not exactly starting out on the right foot.

Saunders took the reigns as the #1 and put forth a second straight brilliant month of May pitching-wise, Jered Weaver has been outstanding and the most consistent pitcher for the Halos this season, and the feel-good story has to be that of Matt Palmer, a 30-year-old rookie who broke into the majors for the first time with San Francisco last year after spending countless years bouncing around in the minors and contemplating giving up on baseball altogether. Palmer’s been a pleasant and most certainly unexpected surprise by going 5-0 (could have easily been 6-0 or 7-0 if it wasn’t for the bullpen and their blunders) with an ERA of 4.06.

Now, Lackey, Ervin and Kelvim are all back. Lackey’s working his kinks out, Santana finally broke out of his horrific 2-outing slide, and Kelvim was set to make his return Saturday night in Detroit.

Saturday’s contest marked the first time that Kelvim toed the rubber for the Halos in the regular season since that game in Oakland 1 3/4 years ago.

Ever since he joined the Halos in 2004 as part of Arte Moreno‘s big off-season splash that brought in Vladimir Guerrero (won the AL MVP award that year), Bartolo Colon (would win the AL Cy Young award in 2005) as well as Jose Guillen (would be very productive in his 1 year with the Angels before his falling out/spitting on of Mike Scioscia), I’ve always viewed Kelvim as being the guy who has the best stuff and best arsenal of pitches in the staff.

He may not be a #1 starter, but his stuff can only be described as flat-out nasty. He’s got a fastball that can run up to 96 mph, a good hard slider and a devastating split-finger fastball that he can also throw as a change-up to hitters. Escobar has always had a knack of keeping hitters off-balance in the batter’s box throughout his career both as a starter and as a reliever (he actually posted 38 saves with Toronto back in 2002).

And when he’s on, he’s unhittable.

He can start you off with a nice heater at 95-96 for strike one. Next pitch you see, he’s coming at you with what at first looks like another heater, but it drops off the table at around 89-90 mph with great late movement. Now you’re down 0-2 and at Kelvim’s will. He can afford to waste a few pitches at this juncture, but if you’re not careful, he can make you look silly by dropping a slider that starts in the zone and ends up in the dirt on you.

He can also bring in another heater up around eye high to mess with the hitter’s eye level, and if the batter doesn’t chase that for strike 3, he could easily throw that splitty and use it like a change-up, getting the batter to swing early; strike 3, see you later.

I was looking for Kelvim to throw right around 90 pitches tonight, but I really didn’t know what to expect out of him, considering the injury he was coming back from required major surgery.

His first inning would be a little wild, but hey, I can’t be too hard on him for that. He’d give up 2 runs on 2 hits while walking 1, and also record his first strikeout of the season to end the inning. Although Kelvim threw 30 pitches in the 1st inning and was a bit wild with his command, I couldn’t help but notice the fact that he was throwing 96 on his heaters by inning’s end, and would freeze Jeff Larish with a filthy splitter. Those were quite welcome signs for his 1st inning of work in well over a year and a half.

He’d only need 10 pitches to get through the 2nd, and would end the inning on a strike-’em-out-throw-’em-out double play. No runs allowed in the 2nd, and as a matter of fact, no runs allowed the rest of the way for Kelvim.

Kelvim would only give up 1 more hit in his final 3 innings of work, and would leave after his 5th inning of work, 92 pitches in total. In his 5 innings, he would only give up those 2 first inning runs while allowing only 4 hits, walking 4 and striking out 5. Kelvim got tagged for the loss despite a great 1st outing in my opinion (the Angels would only give him 1 run of run support throughout the game en route to their 2-1 Saturday night loss).

The loss doesn’t mean much in my opinion, and I’d think it wouldn’t mean much to Mike Scioscia either. Kelvim was back and clocking fastballs routinely between 92-96 miles per hour. His splitter was looking good. Sure the command’s a little off, but it’s his first start of the season (and as I recall, John Lackey’s command in his first start was just a bit off to, wasn’t it? *cough cough* he threw 2 pitches at Ian Kinsler’s dome and then was ejected *cough cough*).

Kelvim will get into his groove, I feel confident with that statement. Ervin threw 8 2/3 brilliant slump-busting innings of 1-run ball the night before. Jered Weaver continues to look phenomenal and actually has the 4th best ERA in all of the MLB with a 2.26 mark. Saunders is looking to bounce back tomorrow after being roughed up by Toronto for 6 runs in 5 1/3 innings pitched in his last outing. Joe found just a little too much of the plate in that outing but has been great for the Angels in 8 of his 11 starts this year.

On the offensive side, Vladdy’s starting to take some good cuts, Bobby Abreu‘s beginning to find that power stroke of old, Torii Hunter is continuing to produce, Figgy seems like he gets on base every at-bat, but I’m still waiting for Howie Kendrick to bust out of his season-long slump. Nap‘s been pretty much a guaranteed out of late and a liability behind the plate, that goes for you too, Jeff Mathis (with the bat at least).

On a positive note, I’d like to give major kudos to Jason Bulger who has been outstanding in his last 14 relief appearances, picking up 2 wins and giving up only 1 run in those 15 1/3 innings of work. His fastball has been absolutely flying out of his hand, hitting 96-97 on the radar gun, and his change-of-page breaking ball has been absolutely devastating. His year started off rocky (that’s an undestatement), but Scioscia has been giving him the ball more frequently of late, and he’s been closing the door on opposing offenses in return. He’s been a bright spot in a pretty bad bullpen otherwise so far this season (but I guess I spoke to soon, as Bulger walked a few batters in the 8th in Sunday’s game and allowed  a grand slam homer to Clete Thomas to bust the game wide open in Detroit’s favor). I must’ve jinxed him. Great. Just great.

Anyways, as long as the Angels get healthier, they’re only going to get more dangerous. Currently, the Halos are only 3 1/2 games behind the AL West-leading Texas Rangers. Once the Angels finally have a clearly defined starting rotation of pitchers 1-5, I think they’ll hit their stride and make their run. Good pitching is contagious, last year’s Angel rotation is a prime example of that. The Angels will have 4 solid workhorses in Lackey, Santana, Saunders, and Escobar and a potential emerging star in Jered Weaver.

Be excited Halo fans, the best is yet to come.

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Filed under Angel News, Angel Stories, June Game Recaps

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