There are long stretches of a season when a manager feels like that little Dutch boy who puts his finger in the dike. Just when you think one leak is sealed, another springs up.
Despite a 7-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Turner Field on Sunday night, the Angels are trending upward in some areas.
Mike Trout has put a 19-game funk in which he hit .164 firmly behind him. The center fielder is on a 20-game tear, batting .400 (30 for 75) with six home runs and 22 runs batted in to push his season totals to .305 with 14 home runs and 50 RBIs.
Albert Pujols is emerging from a month-long slump in which he hit .179, going 11 for 30 (.367) with six RBIs in seven games to improve to .258 with 16 home runs and 41 RBIs on the season.
And a two-month stint on the disabled list because of a torn ligament in his left thumb did not slow Josh Hamilton much. He’s hitting .300 (15 for 50) with eight RBIs in 12 games since his return.
But the good middle-of-the-order vibes were muted Sunday by a left-hip injury that knocked shortstop Erick Aybar who, besides Trout, might be the player the Angels can least afford to lose for long, out of the game in the third inning.
Aybar, who hit a home run in the first inning, injured the hip while making a diving stop Saturday night and aggravated it Sunday while beating out a fielder’s-choice grounder in the third inning.
“I felt it right away, and I don’t want to miss more time, so I thought it’s better to take a day,” Aybar said. “I should be able to play” on Monday.
Aybar is batting .290 with five home runs, 37 RBIs and 33 runs, and his superb defense prompted pitcher Garrett Richards to say, “He’s one of the best in the game at that position.”
Veteran utility infielder John McDonald is a slick defender but nowhere near the hitter Aybar is, and no shortstop in the system is big-league ready, so the Angels were relieved that Aybar’s injury isn’t serious.
The relief corps, however, is another story. The bullpen stabilized after a rocky April, with Joe Smith and Ernesto Frieri locking down the eighth and ninth innings, and Kevin Jepsen, Fernando Salas and Mike Morin providing solid middle relief.
But Salas was put on the disabled list Sunday because of nerve irritation in his arm, Jepsen suffered his first blown save Sunday night, and Frieri’s ninth-inning meltdown Saturday has created uncertainty in the back of the bullpen.
Manager Mike Scioscia said before the game that Frieri’s four-run, five-hit outing, in which he failed to record an out while blowing a 5-1 lead, wouldn’t change his handling of the closer role.
“I don’t think we’re reassessing anything,” Scioscia said. “There are going to be times when Joe is in the back end and times when Ernie is going to be there. We’re a better team when Ernie brings that presence, but we have to get outs, and if we have to mix and match, we’ll do that.”
But the mere fact Scioscia said Smith would close some is likely an indication that Frieri’s hold on the role, which he lost after giving up four runs and three hits in the ninth inning of a 5-4 loss at Washington on April 23, has slipped again.
Frieri regained the closing job by posting a 1.86 earned-run average and converting all nine save opportunities in his next 19 appearances. The evidence: Frieri was summoned for all seven of the team’s save opportunities from May 25 through Saturday; Smith hasn’t pitched in a save situation since May 14.
But Frieri remained resolute in his belief that he can close.
“Earlier this season I was missing spots, leaving the ball down the middle and getting hit,” Frieri said. “But [Saturday] night, I only missed one pitch. The others were right where I wanted them. ... This game is trying to get me frustrated, but I won’t let it.”