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Weaver out to prove ace label suits him well

Set for club-record sixth Opening Day start, Halos righty poised to bounce back

ANAHEIM -- In the grand scheme of a 162-game season, getting the ball on Day One may seem like a trivial distinction. But it means something, because the term "ace" is about so much more than merely placing first in a rotation of five. Opening Day starters carry the responsibility of leading a staff, of wanting the ball, of being that proverbial rock and of coming through when needed most.

So perhaps it's fitting that nobody in Angels history has done this more than Jered Weaver.

When the Angels face the Mariners at Angel Stadium on Monday night at 7:05 PT, Weaver will be making his sixth Opening Day start -- fifth in a row -- to pass Mike Witt for the most in franchise history. And few savor those big moments more than Weaver.

"He wants it, and he loves it," said Mike Butcher, entering his eighth season as the Halos' pitching coach. "It's real. He's a big-game pitcher. And I think the guys that are on the field and in that clubhouse want him out there as well. He's that type of guy. He brings that to the table."

Fitting, too, that Weaver's opponent will be Felix Hernandez, part of that small, upper-echelon group of elite aces.

Weaver -- third in Angels history with 113 wins -- was part of that group from 2010-12, when he averaged 17 wins, a 2.73 ERA and 216 innings while finishing among the top five in American League Cy Young Award votes each year. Last season, however, the right-hander was limited to 24 starts and elevated his ERA to 3.27, throwing his fastball at an alarmingly low velocity. As a result, many now wonder if Weaver still belongs in that discussion.

"When you're not in the talks anymore," Weaver said, "you want to prove to people that you should be in the talks."

It always seems to come back to velocity with Weaver, because it's rare to see an ace pitcher struggle to hit 90 mph and his average speed last year -- a touch above 86 mph -- was the third lowest among those with at least 150 innings.

"They can talk about it all they want," Weaver said. "I know I throw slow. What do you want me to do? But if I put it where I want to, I'm going to get people out."

In Butcher's eyes, "There aren't too many guys in the game, or who have ever played the game, that have the ability to do what he does with the fastball," so the pitching coach never worries about what the radar gun reads when Weaver pitches.

Until last year, Weaver hadn't really lost all that much velocity. In 2007, his average four-seam fastball velocity was 90 mph. In 2012, it was 88. Last year, however, it dropped to 86.8-- but Butcher sees that as an outlier, a direct byproduct of an injury.

In his second start of the season, at Rangers Ballpark on April 7, Weaver ducked out of the way of a line drive, landed awkwardly on his non-throwing arm and wound up spending the next seven weeks on the disabled list with a broken left elbow.

"Frustrating," Weaver called it. "I like to take the ball every fifth day, man, and there wasn't anything I could do to speed up the process or do anything. I just had to sit and wait."

And he couldn't really work out, because it's too difficult to work on just one side of the body. So Weaver couldn't lift weights, do squats, get too deep into his stretching routine or do any of the things that allow him to build strength in his arm and get his velocity where it should be.

This offseason, though, Weaver worked with massage therapist Yoichi Terada for a month to "get all the limbs and everything feeling up to par." Then he hit the weights hard and was back in the upper 80s in his Cactus League starts, hitting mostly 87 and 88 mph, occasionally touching 89 and 90, and sometimes even venturing into 91.

Butcher expects Weaver to stay around that velocity all season, back where he was in the years when he was capturing AL Cy Young votes.

And Weaver doesn't need much more than that.

"He's got the most unique delivery in the Major Leagues right now," Butcher said. "His deception is not so much the arm angle or the arm slot; it's about how far he is across his body. He's able to hide the ball longer, which makes the velocity that you see as a number play a lot higher than it actually is."

Weaver is also a master of putting pitches together, with razor-sharp command of his two-seamer, changeup, curveball and slider, all of which he can throw at varying speeds.

"He just keeps adding and adding, and mastering every one of them," Butcher said. "He's got tremendous feel, and he sees what the hitter is presenting to him as the game goes on. He's one of the best guys I've ever seen make those types of adjustments in a game."

That's why Butcher doesn't worry about Weaver, even while the rest of the world wonders.

Weaver, meanwhile, welcomes the doubt.

"I always get motivation off trying to prove people wrong," Weaver said. "I've always done that throughout my career. A lot of people said that I couldn't do a lot of stuff, and I've proven a lot of people wrong. That's kind of motivation for me. I love it when people talk."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Jered Weaver