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Ernesto Frieri out as Angels closer; Joe Smith will pitch 9th inning

BaseballSportsErnesto FrieriLos Angeles AngelsJoe Smith (baseball)New York YankeesFernando Salas

NEW YORK -- Ernesto Frieri is out as the Angels' closer for now. Manager Mike Scioscia, as expected, said veteran right-hander Joe Smith will assume the ninth-inning relief role beginning with Friday night’s game against the New York Yankees, and the struggling Frieri will pitch in lower-leverage situations.

“We want to get Ernie off of that treadmill and let him get an inning or two where he can try to make some adjustments,” Scioscia said. “Historically, Ernie has responded well to this. We need him, and I think this is the best route to take to get to the final solution we want.”

That final solution -- at least, as the Angels drew it up over the winter -- includes Frieri closing and the sidearm-throwing Smith pitching the eighth. But it was clear after Frieri failed to protect a three-run, ninth-inning lead in a 5-4 loss to Washington on Wednesday night that he wasn’t up to the task.

Frieri is 0-2 with a 9.35 earned-run average, five homers given up and two blown saves in 10 appearances. Though he had a 90% success rate in 2012 and 2013, converting 60 of 67 save opportunities, he has given up 25 homers since the start of 2012, more than any other reliever with at least 40 saves in that span.

Scioscia demoted Frieri from the closer role last season, when Frieri gave up 12 runs in 4 2/3 innings from July 23-Aug. 6. Frieri, pitching in lower-stress situations, posted a 1.66 ERA in his final 15 games and earned his ninth-inning job back.

“He understands it,” Scioscia said. “He understands the team’s needs right now outweigh where he is. He’ll get it back. Just like he worked his way into the ninth-inning role for us two years ago, he’ll work his way back there.”

Scioscia said he will “mix and match” in the eighth inning, with Michael Kohn, Fernando Salas, Kevin Jepsen and left-hander Nick Maronde among his options. Frieri will not pitch in the eighth inning of close games for now.

“To put him in setup role right now would defeat the purpose, because you’re going to put him in a high-leverage situation,” Scioscia said. “If you’re ready for the eighth inning, you’re ready for the ninth.”

Frieri has not lost velocity on his 95-mph fastball, and he is throwing his slider, a pitch he had little confidence in last year, for strikes. But his fastball, which normally dips and darts, looked flat and straight Wednesday, and Frieri failed to put hitters away when ahead in counts.

“I think it’s a feel thing, a release point issue,” Scioscia said. “Mechanically he’s fine. At times he’s overthrowing, and when he does, he’s missing some spots. He’s not a fine control guy, but he definitely knows what area he wants to throw the ball, and he’s usually pretty good at getting it there. He’s missing anywhere from up and away to down and in to left-handers.”

Smith, the former Cleveland Indians setup man who signed a three-year, $15.75-million deal over the winter, has never been a closer, but he does have three saves in his seven-year career.

“He was going to get some saves this year,” Scioscia said. “If you’re pitching the eighth inning, there are times when you’re going to be called on to get the save, so we have no reservations about that. I think that short-term, Joe will be good, and this will give Ernie a chance to find his release point.”

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