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Angels relievers are up to the demands of the job

In a game where even the best players fail, theirs is the one job that comes with the expectation of perfection.

By its very name, succeeding as a reliever requires — no, demands — one thing: providing relief. Anything less won't do.

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"It's like being an offensive lineman," Blake Wood said. "If you're doing your job, no one knows you're there. No one knows you until a guy gets by and sacks the quarterback."

So far, Wood and the other members of the Angels' bullpen haven't been completely airtight. But they've been admirably close.

Off to the best start after 16 games in franchise history, the Angels have forged a 13-3 record largely on the strength of their offense and the length of their relievers.

The bullpen has provided only 10 fewer innings than the rotation, while pitching to a 2.45 earned-run average and limiting the opposition to a .213 batting average.

The starters have yielded just a .211 average — fourth-best in baseball — but the relievers have stood out more, preserving leads or buying time for a lineup that seems capable of coming back at any moment.

"Everybody's happy in the bullpen right now," Jose Alvarez said. "We're all friends. We're all doing everything we can to try to win the game. Each out we can get gets us closer to 27 outs. That's all we're worried about."

Baseball used to have an award for relievers sponsored by Rolaids, a product used to combat indigestion, the sort of distress that can be caused when the other guys reach base.

Well, the Angels relievers have been the personification of an antacid, stranding 31 of the 33 runners they've inherited.

To appreciate how good this performance is, realize that, playing against each other Saturday, the Chicago Cubs' and Atlanta Braves' bullpens each allowed more than two inherited runners to score in the same game.

Keynan Middleton is six for six. So is Jim Johnson. Alvarez has been the best of all, inheriting 11 runners and permitting none to score.

"He's been definitely the MVP of our bullpen so far," Wood said of Alvarez. "The number of runs he's saved … if some of those runs had scored, we're probably not sitting here with this record."

Alvarez twice has left the bases loaded, including in the sixth inning Friday in Kansas City to keep the Angels' deficit at 4-2. Over the next two innings, his teammates scored three times to win.

The next night, he stranded another runner in the sixth by striking out the side, including the Royals' third and fourth hitters, Mike Moustakas and Lucas Duda.

Alvarez marked the final strike by pumping his fist, about the most emotion the 5-foot-11 left-hander has shown in his four-plus seasons as an Angel.

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"That's a big part of the game, keeping those runners on the bases," he said. "That can be the difference on some nights."

The season is still young, but it's never too early to recognize dominance. Wood, in 10 appearances, still has a 0.00 ERA. Alvarez's ERA also is 0.00 after nine games.

Middleton (0.93) and rookie Luke Bard (1.08) have ERAs that, over the course of a full season, would read like typos.

"I'm just trying to be the best team guy I can be because on this team you don't have to do much really," Middleton said. "You just gotta go out and throw up a zero. That's all I've had to do so far because guys are scoring a bunch of runs."

Manager Mike Scioscia has not named an everyday closer, his preference being to remain flexible in the late innings based on matchups. There is comfort, it seems, in community.

Lately, though, Middleton has been the one finishing games; the right-hander is four for four in save opportunities.

One of those chances required Middleton to secure five outs in Texas, something he accomplished after throwing 37 pitches.

Three days later, he had a more traditional save, working the cleanest of innings in Kansas City, a 1-2-3 ninth that took only 11 pitches, nine of them strikes.

That effort was made more notable in that it came in a game marred by cold, wind and snow, Middleton standing in the middle of all that weather with dreadlocks spilling out from under his cap.

"That's exactly what I want to do," he said of closing. "Whatever I have to do, I'll do, but that's what I'd like to do."

Middleton certainly has the arm, his four-seam fastball averaging nearly 96 mph — 3 mph above the league average.

And at 24 and in his second big league season, he continues to develop the mentality, Scioscia acknowledging Middleton's increased confidence in 2018.

The manager said the next step is how he handles failure, something mostly foreign so far this season to Middleton and the rest of the bullpen.

"At that point, you just have to get over yourself," Middleton said. "That's the way my brain has to be wired because it's not about me at that point. It's the next day. It's about the team."

It's about the Angels team, a team winning behind its offense and its offensive line.

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