Sports

Angels' bullpen has to know how to hold them

There are saves and blown saves for closers and holds for setup men, but there is no formal measure for the performance of those less-heralded relievers who enter with their team trailing by a few runs and hold the score, giving their offense a chance to come back.

There should be.

Managers often talk of the importance of holding late-inning leads and building a bridge between the starter and closer, but as the Angels have been reminded in the first two weeks, it's just as important to hold slim deficits.

"It's huge," Angels setup man Joe Smith said. "When I was in Cleveland, you'd hear we had this many come-from-behind wins. That means the hitters came up big, but it also means that no matter who you threw out there, they threw up zeros, kept the score where it was and gave the hitters a chance."

Example: Last Aug. 11 in Progressive Field, the Angels took a 5-0 lead off Indians starter Justin Masterson in the fourth inning.

But Cleveland relievers Rich Hill, Matt Albers, Smith and Chris Perez combined for 4 2/3 scoreless innings, and the Indians rallied for four in the sixth inning and two in the seventh for a 6-5 victory.

The flip side: The Angels trailed Seattle, 4-3, in the March 31 season opener when Kevin Jepsen (five runs) and Nick Maronde (one) combined to give up six ninth-inning runs in a 10-3 loss.

"To hold a deficit there would have been huge," Jepsen said. "Down by a run in the ninth, with our lineup, it's not asking that much to score one run."

The next night, Michael Kohn gave up a two-run homer to Brad Miller in the ninth inning of an 8-3 loss, putting the game out of reach.

Within a span of three pitches in the sixth inning April 2, Fernando Salas gave up a run-scoring double to Seattle's Michael Saunders and a three-run homer to Mike Zunino, turning a 2-0 deficit into a 6-0 hole.

The right-hander entered with a 4-3 deficit in the seventh inning Tuesday night and gave up a solo homer to Seattle's Corey Hart in a 5-3 loss.

Manager Mike Scioscia expressed confidence in his bullpen before the season, saying the Angels were "in much better shape to bridge those middle innings with guys like Jepsen, Kohn, Maronde and Salas. I think we have a deeper look than we've had in a while."

But through nine games, the bullpen has been roughed up for 15 earned runs and seven homers in 24 1/3 innings for a 5.55 earned-run average, prompting the question: Would Scioscia consider using Smith, his primary setup man, to hold a deficit?

"You want to manage these guys so the group you want in tie games or holding leads is always available," Scioscia said. "To use your better arms to hold deficits, it's got to be if they haven't pitched in a while. As we establish depth, some real good arms could be used to hold deficits."

The bullpen stabilized after a season-opening sweep at the hands of the Mariners, giving up three earned runs in 14 1/3 innings in six games entering Friday night's game against the New York Mets. The expected return of workhorse Dane De La Rosa, who went 6-1 with a 2.86 ERA in a team-high 75 games last season, is another plus. He had a strained forearm.

De La Rosa will push Salas, Kohn or Jepsen into what some might consider a lesser role, "but you have to have bullpen guys you can trust to keep games close when it matters," General Manager Jerry Dipoto said.

"That's where guys emerge from. It's a place where you can really springboard your way to more of a leverage role."

Just ask Angels closer Ernesto Frieri. The right-hander spent his first three seasons pitching middle relief in deep San Diego bullpens, usually entering games in which the Padres trailed. But soon after he was traded to the Angels in May of 2012, he moved into a ninth-inning role.

Frieri had a 3.15 ERA and 60 saves in his first two seasons with the Angels and parlayed that performance into a $3.8-million contract this season.

"My mentality was to go out there and keep the same score, do not allow any more runs, and hope our guys score one or two runs," Frieri said. "Whenever I did my job and we won, I would feel so good."

Up next

The Angels were off Thursday. They open a three-game series against the Mets on Friday at 7 p.m. at Angel Stadium, with left-hander Tyler Skaggs (1-0, 0.00 ERA) scheduled to start against Mets right-hander Dillon Gee (0-0, 4.50). On the air: TV: FS West; Radio: 830.

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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