Bullpen turnaround just one reason Angels won AL West

The ball cracked off the bat of rookie first baseman C.J. Cron and ricocheted off the rocks. The fireworks erupted as the crowd did, too. 

The Los Angeles Angels waited as the Oakland A’s put an exclamation point on their epic collapse with a late-inning loss to the worst team in baseball. It was almost like how they waited for the moment that they were finally recognized as legitimate contenders in the pennant race. 

The Angels were able to do something in Wednesday night’s 5-0 victory that Oakland couldn’t do: "We’ve been able to finish games," said second baseman Howie Kendrick.

There’s a lot that could be said about the team’s turnaround this season. They effectively righted the ship after a 78-win season in 2013 using some no-names like Cron and some big names like Mike Trout. It’s a mix of young and old that was similar to last season, and guys like Matt Shoemaker and Kole Calhoun came into their own. 

But it was the bullpen that really marked the turnaround from middling to champion.

"Late down the stretch, guys in the bullpen have done a great job," Kendrick said. "That’s what you need to make the difference. Our starters give us a chance, we put runs on the board and our guys on the back end did a really great job this year."

With 495 innings, the Angels bullpen has logged more innings than any other team in baseball. The only other playoff-bound team that has thrown anything close is the Baltimore Orioles, who have gone to their ‘pen for 477 innings. The bullpen’s 30 wins is the third-most in the league and opponents are batting only .229 against it. 

"They’ve been throwing well all year," Kendrick said. "(General manager) Jerry (DiPoto) did a great job of getting us pieces in the offseason and we’ve had guys that we’ve called up like (Mike) Morin, (Cory) Rasmus, who we traded for last year is throwing well for us this year. Guys just step up and do it well. We’ve done it with some organizational guys and we’ve done it with some key pieces that we’ve gotten in trades." 

A disaster last season, DiPoto transformed the bullpen this season and didn’t have to give up too much to do so. He shipped out Ernesto Frieri, a short-lived sensation last season, sending him to Pittsburgh for former Pirates closer Jason Grilli. He brought in a situational lefty in Joe Thatcher and then finally, the big-money piece in All Star closer Huston Street.

"I felt like when I got here the bullpen had really kind of hit their stride," Street said. "We see ourselves as a team, we’re a unit. And whether you’re throwing the third, the fourth or the fifth, the sixth the ninth — we’re just trying to do our job."

Starters Hector Santiago and Shoemaker have pitched out of the bullpen. There’s a immense amount of trust and confidence in the stuff of each relief pitcher.

"We recognize that we can all make each other better," Street said. "It’s really been a special group of guys to be around because it’s hard to walk into a group."

It was fitting that the Angels clinched the division with a win over the Mariners. It was the Mariners that swept the Halos to open the season, exposing their early bullpen inefficiencies. Now, 170 games later it’s the Angels on top while the Mariners and the A’s are left clinging to wild-card hopes.

But sometimes baseball is a funny game. A revitalized bullpen has revitalized an entire team, giving them a new identity and a formidable postseason weapon. 

The Angels are back, and it was the bullpen that helped get them here. 

"You can’t put things like this into words," Shoemaker said. "Everybody plays for each other. We’re not playing for ourselves, we’re playing as a team and I think that’s huge."