Shaky outing by Joe Smith raises questions about Angels bullpen use

Joe Smith's recent struggles put Angels bullpen in a tricky situation

It’s a formula that has worked extremely well for the Angels since last July, when they acquired veteran closer Huston Street from the San Diego Padres and pushed right-hander Joe Smith from the ninth inning back to the eighth.

Get a lead through seven innings, and Manager Mike Scioscia can go to Smith, the sidearm-throwing setup man who had a 1.81 earned-run average in 76 games last season, in the eighth and Street, who had 17 saves and a 1.71 ERA in 28 games for the Angels in 2014, in the ninth.

Though Street and Smith don't fit the profile of the flame throwers who populate the back ends of so many bullpens, they solidified a once-shaky relief corps that keyed the team’s 98-win season in 2014.

But the eighth-inning half of that formula has taken a hit this past week. Quite a few of them, in fact. And some walks, too.

Smith struggled for the second straight appearance Tuesday night, giving up three runs and four hits in the eighth inning and failing to retire any of the four left-handed hitters he faced.

The Angels took Smith off the hook for a loss, rallying for two runs in the bottom of the eighth to tie the score and eventually winning, 5-4, on a walk-off homer by Carlos Perez in his major league debut.

But another rough outing by Smith, who retired only one of the four left-handed batters he faced in the ninth inning of Friday night’s loss in San Francisco, raised a question about Scioscia’s bullpen use.

Namely, would he consider using left-hander Cesar Ramos to match up against some left-handed hitters in the eighth inning instead of using Smith exclusively in that role?

"Not now," Scioscia said. "Joe's history is really fine against left-handers. There are going to be innings where we'll match up, but our bullpen will be light years better if we can get Joe comfortable in the eighth inning, which he was last year, and having Huston in the ninth."

Smith has held left-handed hitters to a .240 average over his nine-year career, but lefties are hitting .393 (11 for 28) against him this season. Ramos, acquired from Tampa Bay over the winter, has held lefties to a .158 (three for 19) mark.

Smith replaced starter Garrett Richards to begin the eighth with a 2-1 lead Tuesday night. Robinson Cano led off with a double to deep center and took third on Nelson Cruz’s slow roller to third.

 Kyle Seager hit an RBI single to right, Logan Morrison singled to center, and Mike Zunino hit a ground-rule RBI double to right. Right-hander Fernando Salas replaced Smith and gave up a sacrifice fly to left to Dustin Ackley for a 4-2 Mariners lead.

Ramos struck out Ackley and Cano in the seventh inning of the April 6 season opener in Seattle, and he seemed like a better choice to at least face Cano to open the eighth Tuesday night. But Scioscia said he will likely stick with Smith in similar situations.

"Joe will be fine," Scioscia said. "A couple pitches got away from him tonight. He tried to force some things into some lefties, and those guys did a good job against him. He'll bounce back. He's fine against righties and lefties. Had a tough outing in San Francisco and tonight, but before then, he’s been lights out."

Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna

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