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03/17/11 4:56 PM ET

Jepsen traveled tough road to Angels' bullpen

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Kevin Jepsen came to a crossroads in 2008. He'd gone through shoulder surgery in '05, and the thrust and life were not returning to a fastball that once approached triple digits. He felt like an Angel stripped of his wings.

The prospect of a sixth consecutive season in Class A was distressing to a man with enough tools to be taken in the second round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft by the Angels out of Bishop Manogue (Nev.) High School.

"Going into '08, I was on the bubble with myself," Jepsen, a durable setup reliever at 26, recalled. "For two years after the shoulder surgery, the velocity [was] not there. I don't know how to pitch without velocity. I'm dealing with pain in the shoulder, [asking myself] 'Is this ever going to go away?'

"Physically and mentally, it's tough. 'Is this something I'm going to keep doing? I can't do another year in A ball. I've got to get my stuff back or accept the fact that the surgery was the end for me.'"

Maybe he'd go back to school, become a firefighter. With those thoughts and doubts clouding his mind, Jepsen reported to camp in Arizona in 2008 and gave it one last shot.

The baseball gods finally smiled.

"My arm wasn't hurting," Jepsen said, finding that the first positive sign of spring. "Towards the end of camp, I was touching 93, 94 [mph]. I'd been topping out at 90, 91 -- and with no movement."

The organization noticed. Jepsen began the season at Double-A Arkansas, the highest he'd been in seven professional seasons. He was lights-out: 1.42 ERA, 35 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings.

"A couple of weeks into the season, I was hitting 98, 99 [mph]. OK, here I am. My confidence came back. Everything fell into place."

He was selected to the All-Star Futures Game in old Yankee Stadium, but an ill-timed virus robbed him of his one chance to pitch in the legendary park.

He blew through Triple-A Salt Lake, just as he had at Arkansas, and was promoted by the Angels for his Major League debut that September. He was so impressive in nine outings that he was placed on the Angels' postseason roster, but he did not appear in a three-game sweep by Boston.

His big moments came with Team USA in the Beijing Olympics. Claiming the closer's role on a staff that featured a young Stephen Strasburg, Jepsen did not allow a run in 5 2/3 innings, figuring prominently in a bronze-medal victory over Japan.

Jepsen's best effort had come in the previous game against Cuba, when he yielded a leadoff triple in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game but struck out the next two hitters and retired the side on a groundout.

"I was throwing as hard as I can," Jepsen said, grinning. "I'm like, `Here it is; me against you. Let's get after it.' That was a great feeling. But we lost the game in extra innings, and Cuba then lost to Korea in the gold-medal game."

Jepsen took more than a bronze medal home from China. He'd performed on the world stage and delivered. He'd come a long way in one remarkable season.

Jepsen arrived as a consistent presence in 2009, going 6-4 with a 4.94 ERA in 54 games. In five postseason appearances against the Red Sox and Yankees, he yielded two earned runs in five innings.

"That was a different kind of pressure, about as intense as it gets," Jepsen said.

His growth continued during a distressing 2010 for his team. A pillar out of the bullpen, he shaved his ERA to 3.97 in 68 appearances, going 2-4 while striking out 61 in 59 innings.

"Jep's in the mix for the late innings," manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's working on some things. He has the stuff and has shown what he can do when his command is there."

Jepsen, a formidable presence at 6-foot-3 and about 225 pounds, has complemented his 94-98 mph heater with a cutter that can be highly effective. His refinement of the breaking ball is an ongoing process.

In four Cactus League appearances, he has yielded three hits and two walks in four innings with two strikeouts, holding opponents to a .200 batting average.

"I came into spring with a little different perspective this year," he said. "I've got a plan, working on things I know I'm going to need.

"I still want to have clean outings, but I don't have to concentrate so much on getting outs as much as doing things that will help me down the road."

In a bullpen loaded with strong young arms, Jepsen has graduated into a position of respect. An established late-innings weapon, he could emerge as the closer if circumstances dictate that.

No showman with manufactured theatrics designed to intimidate and draw attention, the gentleman from Nevada exudes an inner confidence befitting someone who traveled a hard road to the big time.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.