Escobar now at home with elite
Veteran right-hander to take ball for Game 2 against Red Sox
BOSTON -- His ERA hasn't been higher than 3.93 in any of his four seasons with the Angels, and he's made at least 30 starts in three of those seasons.
But there are plenty of signs that 2007 has been a breakout year for Kelvim Escobar, who will try to help the Halos from falling into an 0-2 series hole when he starts Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox on Friday at Fenway Park.
There's the 3.40 ERA, his best in a full season as a starter, and there's the career-high 18 wins, five more than ever before.
But as Escobar shared a podium with Angels manager Mike Scioscia before Wednesday's series opener, the skipper made mention of two more signs of the 31-year-old Venezuelan righty's ascension into the game's pitching elite.
"I think obviously with 'Esky,' he's got bigger earrings as he's had more success," Scioscia said as Escobar broke into a smile every bit as bright as the thumbnail-sized diamonds shining in his earlobes. "My wife is really upset with me every time she sees him walking around the ballpark; they've got to be six carats apiece.
"So with success comes bigger earrings."
Whatever the size of the rocks he's been rocking, Escobar has been a rock in the Halos' rotation since he signed as a free agent in 2003, and since the start of 2005, his 3.44 ERA is the fourth in the AL.
His stellar work with the Angels over the past several years went largely unnoticed, however, until he established himself as an early AL Cy Young Award candidate this season with 10 wins before the All-Star break.
Fair or not, wins are what move the national needle, and Escobar acknowledged as much while discussing his season.
"I think I've been pitching very well in my last few years," he said. "But to be a winner at this level, it takes more than going out there and pitching well. A lot of things have to come together at the same time, you know? You have to play defense, you have to get support from the hitters, scoring runs. ... That's the way the game is."
Scioscia offered the same general assessment -- only more emphatically.
"This is a breakout year for Kelvim because he's got more support," Scioscia said, alluding to Escobar's 11-14 record in 2006 despite a 3.60 ERA. "He's one of the top pitchers in our league, and with the support, you can see the wins he's put up for us this year. He's always had this potential. He's very comfortable in his role, with his stuff. He's very confident."
That confidence comes, in part, from experience. Escobar has been a professional since signing with Toronto as a non-drafted free agent in 1992.
"I've been around for a long time," he said. "And I have the desire to get better every day."
That desire prompted him to morph his brain into something of a sponge during his time in Toronto, where he soaked up some valuable lessons from established moundsmen such as Roger Clemens, Dave Stewart, Juan Guzman, David Wells and Pet Hentgen.
"I played with a lot of good pitchers," Escobar said. "I just learned watching the veteran guys."
Suggesting potential greatness, Escobar posted at least 10 wins in 1999, 2000 and 2003, and he rung up more than 120 strikeouts four times with the Blue Jays. But he never posted an ERA below 4.29, and he never pitched in the playoffs.
Now he's pitching in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons with the Angels; his postseason ERA is 3.07 in seven appearances. But Friday will mark only the second time he's started in the playoffs, and the first time isn't a fond memory. With the Halos down, 2-0, in the 2004 ALDS, Escobar walked five and gave up five hits in 3 1/3 innings of Game 3 at Fenway as the Red Sox closed out the sweep.
"It was tough," Escobar admitted. "[But] I think it's better this time. It's a new year, new games. And I think two years ago ... I think I put pressure on myself a little bit, trying to do too much."
On Thursday, Scioscia was asked if he planned to give Escobar any advice.
"I think the advice to give him is [to] not look at it as the biggest start of your career; it's a baseball game," Scioscia said. "He has terrific stuff. He's pitched in games that, if you look back on them, were maybe swing games. [He] gave us some momentum [in] important games during the season and pitched incredible baseball. He needs to bring his game onto the field and do a lot of what we saw [Game 1 winner Josh] Beckett do.
"Beckett didn't deviate from his plan, had great stuff with great command last night and had terrific results."
Escobar said Wednesday said he'll just do what he's been doing all year, and what he's been doing is confounding opponents with a repertoire nearly as diverse as his Game 2 counterpart, Daisuke Matsuzaka.
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"He has five pitches that he can throw over the plate at any count," Scioscia said. "And I think that's what makes him so tough. So I don't think there's any magic spell or formula he needs to take into the game. He needs to get into the zone early and put guys away and his stuff will speak for itself."
Boston manager Terry Francona said he loved his club's ability in Game 1 to lay off pitches out of the strike zone from John Lackey and hopes to see a repeat performance against Escobar.
"If we stay in the zone, it will certainly give us a much better chance to score some runs," Francona said. "He's got good velocity -- actually, sometimes great velocity -- and offspeed pitches that are in and out of the zone down. And if you can't lay off of those or you put those in play, you don't do a lot with them. [He's] got a lot of deception to his offspeed, with a very good fastball. It'll be important for us to put it up in the zone and swing at strikes."
Added an AL scout of Escobar: "He's got a plus fastball, a plus-plus splitter, nice changeup, real tight slider and a good curveball. When he's healthy and he's on and he's pitching against your team, look out. Pack a lunch. You're in for a long day."
Escobar has been on for most of the year. Some shoulder inflammation led to an 11-day rest between his penultimate and final starts of the regular season, but in that final start, he allowed only one run on five hits over six strong innings to beat the A's on the road.
"I feel pretty good," Escobar said Wednesday, before Beckett dominated with a four-hitter in Boston's 4-0 victory. "I think the rest helped me a lot, just let the inflammation come down, and I feel pretty good right now. ... I'm just going to go out there and be aggressive -- pound the strike zone and use my pitches. One thing you want to do for sure is keep the ball down. Everybody knows the right-field line, the Green Monster, you know, very short fence.
"But at the same time, you can't change anything. I'm just going to go out there and do what I do best, and let my ability take care of the game."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.