The Angels bullpen had taken a pounding in the previous eight games, allowing 17 earned runs in 21 2/3 innings and blowing four saves. Relievers entered Tuesday night with an 11-8 record, 4.49 earned run average and an American League-high 12 blown saves.
Ernesto Frieri lost his closing job to Joe Smith for the second time this season after giving up four runs in the ninth inning at Atlanta on June 14 and a walk-off grand slam to Nick Swisher in Cleveland last Thursday.
But the bullpen was superb in relief of shaky starter C.J. Wilson Tuesday night, with Mike Morin, Kevin Jepsen, Frieri and Smith each throwing scoreless innings in an 8-6 victory over the Minnesota Twins that pushed the Angels (42-33) nine games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2012 season.
“The bullpen saved the game,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “Trying to get four innings out of the bullpen, it’s stretching a bit, but all those guys did a good job.”
Wilson was staked to a 5-0 lead in the first but was rocked for five runs and five hits in the second and gave up another run in the fifth.
But Morin, the rookie right-hander, retired the side in order in the sixth to lower his ERA to 1.42 in 24 games. Jepsen induced a key double-play grounder from Joe Mauer in the seventh, Frieri retired the side in order in the eighth, and Smith allowed one hit in a scoreless ninth for his sixth save.
“That’s huge for the bullpen,” center fielder Mike Trout said. “Hopefully they can get some confidence back.”
Jepsen, however, didn’t see the bullpen effort as heroic.
“We don’t really look at it as a confidence boost,” he said. “It’s our job. Every person feels like we can do that day in and day out, especially when guys only have to go one inning. Everyone closes out their inning, and that’s it.”
Though Smith will close for now, Scioscia said Frieri will be “a big part” of the group of relievers “who are able to hold leads for us.” Frieri, who is 0-3 with a 5.64 ERA in 33 games, said he appreciated the opportunity Tuesday night.
“I need to get back to my routine, to being good Ernie, and the only way to do that is by pitching,” Frieri said. “They gave me a chance today in a close game, in the eighth inning, and I threw the ball well and hit my spots. That’s when I want to pitch, at the end of the game.”
Frieri said he has been working on keeping the ball down in the strike zone, even if that means taking a little off his 95-mph fastball. He struck out Chris Parmelee with a well-located, 93-mph down-and-away fastball Tuesday night.
“When I overthrow my fastball, I miss spot, and I get hurt on pitches up in strike zone,” Frieri said. “I’ve been throwing on the sideline with [pitching coach] Mike [Butcher] and asking him and [ace Jered] Weaver questions. They all say keep the ball down.
“You have to work at it. It takes good mechanics, it takes time, it takes confidence, it takes a little bit of everything. It sounds easy. Keep the ball down. But to make it happen is not that easy, especially when you know if you miss, you’re going to get hurt like I was in the past week.”