Mike Morin retired the side in order in the eighth inning, and Joe Smith threw a one-two-three ninth for his 14th save Saturday night, the Angels rolling to a 5-2 victory over the Texas Rangers that gave them 18 wins in 22 games.
The Angels could get used to this. Not just the winning, but the lock-down efforts of a bullpen that two months ago was viewed as the team's most glaring weakness but is emerging as a strength, the group pitching to a 1.68 earned-run average and holding opponents to a .188 mark in the last 19 games.
"We're filling up the strike zone, getting ahead of guys, and we're feeling better as a whole," said Smith, who has thrown nine straight hitless innings.
"It's a big turnaround from the beginning of the year. It's a good feeling when you come running out of the bullpen and you can see the guys have confidence in you."
The bullpen was a mess for much of April and May, the meltdowns of closer Ernesto Frieri, some early inconsistency from Kevin Jepsen and Fernando Salas and the lack of a left-hander preventing the establishment of defined roles.
The Angels used 18 relievers in the first 21/2 months, and through June 22, they combined to go 11-8 with a 4.48 ERA and convert just 16 of 28 save opportunities.
But Jepsen began racking up scoreless innings, and Morin, the 22-year-old rookie, was called up from double A in late April and began fooling hitters with his superb changeup.
Smith, the sidearm-throwing right-hander, replaced Frieri as closer in late June, the Angels traded Frieri to Pittsburgh for right-hander Jason Grilli on June 27, and they acquired veteran left-hander Joe Thatcher from Arizona on July 5.
Smith has converted all nine of his save opportunities since and retired the side in order in 10 of his last 11 games. Grilli has not given up an earned run in six innings, and Jepsen has given up one earned run in his 262/3 innings, lowering his ERA to 2.13 in 44 games.
Those three have solidified the eighth and ninth innings, and Morin, who has a 2.14 ERA in 32 games, and Salas, who has a 3.03 ERA in 30 games, have provided quality middle relief.
Thatcher hasn't been much of a factor, appearing in only three games, but he provides a dimension — a situational left-hander with a funky delivery — the bullpen has lacked.
"There's a different vibe," Jepsen said. "Early in the year, there was so much movement, and it's tough to get that chemistry until you have a set group of guys. Everyone knows their role, and everyone has bought into it. Everyone has the same mentality — throw strikes, go after guys, don't walk guys. I like our bullpen."
So does Manager Mike Scioscia, who thinks the bullpen is much better equipped to compete in close games now.
"That really comes down to the effectiveness of our bullpen," Scioscia said. "I think we're evolving as a team, and part of that is the back end of the bullpen being able to hold leads in tight games."
Smith has anchored the bullpen, but not with the heavy fastball or nasty breaking ball most closers use. Smith rarely tops 90 mph, but his pitches dip and dart around the strike zone and are tough to square up.
"Everybody likes the power arm, the strikeout guy," Smith said. "But if I keep the ball down, induce grounders and keep the ball in the yard, it takes three hits to score a run."
A Cleveland setup man from 2009 to -2013, Smith said pitching the ninth "isn't any different" from the eighth, and it shows.
"A lot of setup guys do a good job in the eighth, and for some reason the ninth inning gets away from them," said catcher Hank Conger. "But Joe has done a good job of treating it as any other inning and not putting too much pressure on himself or thinking, 'Oh my God, one mistake can change the game.'"Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times