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Weaver, Angels share seasons of redemption

ANAHEIM -- Jered Weaver has been at his best lately, in the buildup to his long-awaited postseason return. The fastball has been a couple ticks higher, the slider has had a little bit more bite, the command has been sharper, his results have been better.

It's no coincidence.

Weaver's getting excited again.

"It's going to be fun, man," the Angels' ace said of taking the ball on Thursday night, for Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Angel Stadium. "I'm looking forward to it. It's been a while since we've had that playoff atmosphere."

For Weaver, a playoff participant in each of his first three full seasons, it seems like a lifetime ago. And in a way, that four-year drought from 2010-13 sort of was. All you have to do is look at how much has transpired with Weaver, now four days away from his 32nd birthday.

He went on a three-year run from 2010-12 that saw him make the All-Star team and finish among the top five in AL Cy Young Award voting each time, a stretch in which he posted a 2.73 ERA that was wasted on non-playoff teams.

Weaver got married and now has two kids, a son named Aden and a daughter named Josie.

And lately, he started facing outside doubt, as his fastball velocity continued to erode -- from 89.82 mph in 2009 to 87.58 mph this season -- and the numbers began to tail off.

Weaver's 2014 season -- 18 wins, 213 1/3 innings and a 3.59 ERA despite a career-high 27 homers -- wasn't dynamic, but it was nonetheless impressive and crucial. All that talk about Garrett Richards' rise to stardom, or Matt Shoemaker's surprising breakthrough, "wouldn't have the same meaning if Jered wasn't that cornerstone that kept going and kept going," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

"Weave," Scioscia added, "sets the tone."

"I'm proud of him," Weaver's pitching coach, Mike Butcher, said. "He's had a great year, he's getting better now at the right time, and he's brought a lot to the table. It's very, very encouraging."

So many elite pitchers -- from Josh Beckett to Tim Lincecum to, now, Justin Verlander -- have struggled with the almost-unavoidable dip in velocity, but Weaver came into his own after he could no longer throw in the mid-90s. Asked how Weaver can be so successful with a fastball that was fourth-slowest among qualified, non-knuckleball-throwing starters this season, Butcher said, "The bottom line is he can just flat-out pitch."

Then Butcher listed all that goes into that statement.

The first: "He's one of those guys who's very deceptive, has command and can throw any pitch at any count."

Weaver's average changeup is almost eight ticks slower than his average fastball, while his curveball can be thrown in the high 60s. His command shows up in precise location, like the two-seam fastball that starts near the waist of a left-handed hitter and breaks to the corner of home plate, or the back-door curveball he can spot with the best of them. And no matter what Weaver is throwing, it's all coming out of the exact same arm angle.

"With each and every single pitch," backup catcher Hank Conger said. "He's always stepping in the exact same spot."

Butcher then mentioned how Weaver "reads hitters probably better than anybody I've ever seen."

Weaver isn't a big numbers guy, but he's got a freakish memory for how hitters have reacted to him in the past, and he knows exactly what he wants to do every five days. The pre-start meeting with Conger, Butcher and Chris Iannetta is basically Weaver's show.

"He's pretty much just running the meeting," Conger said, "and we're just trying to get on the same page."

The last point brought up by Butcher was something that can't be measured; a trait that doesn't show up in the stat sheet but is felt throughout the Angels' clubhouse:

"He's got a will to win."

As Albert Pujols said, "He's the guy that you want to have on the mound in big games."

Ever since Richards went down on Aug. 20, with the devastating knee injury that was supposed to cripple the Angels' playoff hopes, Weaver has stepped up.

From Aug. 24 until he took the mound on Sept. 26 -- for a final regular-season start he was merely hoping to come out of healthy -- he posted a 2.72 ERA, pitching into the seventh inning four out of six times. Weaver's fastball, a pitch he's now also using to finish off hitters rather than set them up, averaged nearly 92 mph in that stretch. His slider had the big break he'd been looking for, finally becoming a pitch he can throw inside to lefties.

Scioscia believes Weaver's current stuff "is way better than it was when he won 20 games a couple years ago," and there's reason for that.

Weaver is healthier. He committed himself to a strenuous routine of stretching and massage therapy over the offseason and "worked out the kinks" from a shoulder that had a lot of wear and tear on it. He's also stronger. The broken left elbow he suffered on April 7, 2013, didn't just rob Weaver of seven weeks of the season that he spent on the disabled list; it kept him from doing heavy, weight-bearing exercises until around the middle of this season.

"There's times where I've had to work around some things, and now I'm back to throwing the ball comfortably and not having to worry about anything physically out there," Weaver said. "It's a good feeling."

For his teammates, so is the fact that he'll be the one to kick off their postseason.

"I think a lot of guys here look up at him as far as, 'Hey, we need you to lead the way,' and he understands that," Conger said. "He's that guy that's like, 'I want that ball. Give me the ball that first game and let me do my thing.'"

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