Bullpen sets stage for Iannetta's 13th-inning heroics
After Weaver's strong start, six Angels relievers hold Reds to one hit
CINCINNATI -- It's just one game and 161 of them remain, but first impressions tend to carry added significance. Sometimes, perhaps, they can even set a tone. And that's why the Angels' Opening Day, 3-1, 13-inning win over the Reds in Monday's marathon seemed to carry an important underlying message:
This is not a one-dimensional team.
Conventional wisdom labeled the Angels as an offense-first club heading into 2013, with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in one lineup. But when the 45-degree weather cooled their bats, it was the Angels' bullpen -- the same one that tied for the American League lead in blown saves last year -- that rose to the occasion, pitching seven innings of near-flawless baseball to set it up for Chris Iannetta's heroics in the 13th.
"You were kind of hearing some mixed stories about if that was going to be our weak point or what-not," Angels ace Jered Weaver said after an effective, workmanlike outing. "As a team, we were always pretty confident we have some guys down there that can do great things. I think we saw that tonight. That's what it's going to take to win some key games, and tonight was one of those key games."
The first Opening Day Interleague game in history, in front of the largest regular-season crowd at the launching pad known as Great American Ball Park, was about as National League as one can get.
Weaver (six innings) and Johnny Cueto (seven) gave up only one run apiece and both teams totaled eight hits in the first 12 frames. The Angels struck out 17 times, tying their Opening Day record, with Trout, Pujols and Hamilton combining to go 1-for-14 with four punchouts and three walks. And it became the longest game in Angels Opening Day history, at 4 hours and 45 minutes.
It finally ended in the 13th. Hank Conger -- the last position player remaining on manager Mike Scioscia's bench -- was hit by a J.J. Hoover slider, loading the bases with two outs for Iannetta, who earlier brought in the Angels' only run with a third-inning solo homer and had just begun his season by catching 12 innings.
Iannetta fouled off back-to-back low-90s fastballs at 3-2, then got one out over the plate, lined it past a diving Todd Frazier, brought in Hamilton and Howie Kendrick and boisterously clapped his hands after rounding first base, a rare sign of emotion from the stoic catcher.
"I was excited," Iannetta said. "I definitely was excited. I wanted to do something good; I want to contribute. Even though I may not do something at the plate, I'm contributing when I'm catching. But I want to contribute offensively, as well, and getting the opportunity to do that was fun."
Scioscia called it "a great character game" for the Angels, who have now won nine of their last 10 Opening Day games and five straight. That was the case especially for the relief corps, which gave up just one hit and one walk while striking out nine in seven innings against the reigning National League Central champs.
Garrett Richards, the 24-year-old right-hander who forced his way onto the club with a scorching spring, blanked the Reds for 1 2/3 innings and had a key strikeout with the bases loaded.
Lefty Sean Burnett, signed to a two-year deal in the offseason, struck out Jay Bruce to keep them loaded in the eighth.
Kevin Jepsen, who seemed to find himself after returning from Triple-A last July, struck out two in a 1-2-3 ninth.
Scott Downs, one of baseball's best lefty relievers over the last six years, had a clean 10th.
Mark Lowe, the power arm the Angels have coveted since November and finally got when he was released by the Dodgers last week, went two innings without allowing a run.
And Ernesto Frieri, who was remarkable after coming over from the Padres last May, struck out two in the 13th to notch his first save.
"We are built on the offensive side, no doubt," Scioscia said. "But we're not going to get our goal done unless we're able to hold leads, and we did it tonight."
What Scioscia hopes is that it's a sign of things to come.
Over the last two years, the Angels' bullpen has led the AL with a combined 47 blown saves. Last year, when they began the season 18-25, the bullpen was a main culprit. And when they fell short of the playoffs with 89 wins, a lack of depth in the back end was looked at as a key reason the Angels fell short, prompting general manager Jerry Dipoto to add Burnett and Ryan Madson over the winter.
On Monday, with a lights-out Cueto on the other side and against a team with the best bullpen in the Majors last year, Angels relievers answered the bell -- even though Madson can only sit and watch.
Maybe it's just one game.
Or maybe it's a sign of what they now have.
"I told you guys, this year, we're going to be better -- way better than last year," Frieri said. "Everybody's mentally and physically prepared. It's not easy to pitch in this weather, in a tied game, Opening Day, and everybody's prepared. That's what we have here. We're going to have a lot of fun, and we're ready to go."