It was a look, and a feeling, that Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto came to dread, not only last season, but at times in April and May this year. The bullpen gate would open in the late innings of a close game and a sense of uncertainty would trot in with an Angels reliever.
“You could see it in the body language of Albert Pujols and Erick Aybar, of the three outfielders —shoulders would drop, heads would go down,” Dipoto said. “There was a general exhale, like, ‘Here we go, strap it on, this could be a bumpy ride.’ You don’t really sense that with this group.”
A newfound confidence in the bullpen began to emerge in late June when Joe Smith replaced Ernesto Frieri as closer, Kevin Jepsen started piling up scoreless innings, rookie Mike Morin blossomed and veteran Jason Grilli was acquired from Pittsburgh in a trade for Frieri.
But the final piece to the puzzle, one that transformed one of the American League’s most unreliable relief corps into a dominant one, was the July 18 acquisition of closer Huston Street from the San Diego Padres.
The veteran right-hander has converted 11 of 12 save opportunities with the Angels, giving up two earned runs and 14 hits in 18 innings for a 1.00 earned-run average, his only blemish coming in an Aug. 17 loss at Texas.
Even more comforting for the Angels, who open a two-game series against the Houston Astros on Tuesday night, is that the fasten-the-seat belt sign is no longer illuminated when their closer enters a game.
“Huston is very calm, it’s very easy to trust him, and more important, he trusts himself, he knows what he’s doing,” said Dipoto, a former big league reliever. “I don’t want to say he has ice water in his veins, because that’s overused, but he has the pulse to pitch the ninth inning.
“He has command. He’s willing to walk on the ledge, and that’s a great trait. And at 31, he’s done this for a long time. He’s creeping up on 300 saves.”
Street has 269 saves in 10 seasons with Oakland (2005-08), Colorado (2009-11), San Diego (2012-14) and the Angels. Since 2011, he has converted 120 of 129 save opportunities, a 93% success rate that is the best among major league relievers with a minimum of 50 save opportunities in that span.
And he has done it with pinpoint control of a fastball that rarely tops 91 mph and a slider and changeup that have the same release point as his fastball, adding to his deception.
“I love it,” said Smith, the sidearm-throwing setup man. “Everyone has that mentality that a closer should throw 95-100 mph with a wipeout slider, and there are guys who do that. But it’s awesome to see a guy who doesn’t throw hard, who isn’t a prototypical closer, and who gets the job done. He knows how to pitch.”
Dipoto says there are parallels between Street and Greg Maddux, the Hall of Fame right-hander who thrived despite a mid-career drop in velocity. Maddux had superb command and an ability to manipulate the ball, allowing him to out-wit rather than overpower batters.
“With Maddux, you knew after one or two pitches that he was already thinking how he was going to finish off a hitter,” Dipoto said. “I really think Huston, in his mind, has plotted out a number of pitches in the sequence he’s going to use. He’ll elevate a fastball, locate a changeup, then throw six sliders in a row in different spots.”
This was apparent Aug. 1 in Tropicana Field when the Tampa Bay Rays loaded the bases against Street with no outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Street didn’t panic. He worked ahead in the count to the next three batters, striking out Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist with sliders and getting Matt Joyce to fly to center field to preserve a 5-3 victory for the Angels.
“You don’t get to close for as long as he has without making big pitches,” Smith said. “I think the biggest difference between the older guys and younger guys in the league is on the mental side of things, being able to slow things down, stay unemotional until everything is over. Huston does an unbelievable job of that.”
The addition of Street allowed Smith, who converted 10 of 10 save opportunities as temporary closer and is 5-2 with a 2.07 ERA in 66 games, to move back to an eighth-inning role and Jepsen, who has a 2.03 ERA in 66 games, to the seventh inning.
That depth has given Manager Mike Scioscia the luxury of using Grilli, an All-Star closer for the Pirates last season, in the sixth inning of several games, and Morin, who has a highly effective fastball-changeup combination, as a troubleshooter to extricate the Angels from middle-inning jams.
Fernando Salas, who has thrown 15 consecutive scoreless innings, giving up four hits and striking out 18 batters, since returning from triple A in early August, has provided an added boost, and Cory Rasmus bridged several middle-inning gaps before moving into the rotation over the weekend.
The bullpen logged a 4.36 ERA and .243 opponents average in the first 66 games. It has compiled a 2.43 ERA and .209 opponents average in 69 games since and is the primary reason the Angels, coming off a four-game sweep of Oakland, have the best record in baseball.
“I feel confident,” Smith said, “that with the guys we’ve got, if we have a lead after five innings, we’re going to win.”