Angels reliever Michael Kohn says pitching out of the bullpen is a lot like playing offensive line.
“They get no glory until they mess up,” he said. “That’s what we are and that’s the job we signed up for. When something goes bad, all the cameras will be in our face.”
And when something goes good? Well, sometimes that happens in anonymity — as was the case Wednesday when five relievers held the Oakland Athletics to just a hit over six innings, allowing the Angels to rally for a 5-4, 12-inning win that ended just before 11:30 p.m. in a mostly empty Angel Stadium.
The game was the Angels’ fourth extra-inning game on the six-game homestand — something that hasn’t happened since June 1975. And the bullpen didn’t fare well in all of them, getting tagged with two losses to give it more saves blown (3) than converted (1) on the season.
But that may be about to turn around. With Kevin Jepsen, Fernando Salas, Kohn and Yoslan Herrera combining to give up just a hit in five scoreless innings, the Angels rallied to force the game into extra innings. And then Joe Smith, who gave up four runs without getting an out the night before, pitched a scoreless inning and wound up the winner on Chris Iannetta’s walkoff homer.
So maybe Manager Mike Scioscia’s pregame meeting with his coaching staff was a little premature.
“There’s a lot of things we just sifted through to try to understand where our bullpen is … and what we need to do,” he said. “When you start the season you kind of have pseudo roles that are set up that you hope will keep developing. If it’s not going in the right direction you have to be ready to make adjustments.”
Which isn’t to say there aren’t issues worth discussing. Despite a 0-1 record and a 5.68 earned-run average, Scioscia said the Angels remain committed to Ernesto Frieri as closer. And Joe Smith remains the primary set-up guy despite Tuesday’s meltdown, when he gave up four eighth-inning runs without getting an out.
It’s the bridge between the starters and Smith that needs to be rebuilt.
Before Wednesday, Jepsen had given up five runs, five hits and walked three in four innings, and right-hander Fernando Salas has given up two home runs, seven hits and four walks in 6 2/3 innings.
But Jepsen and Salas were both perfect Wednesday, striking out four of the nine batters they faced. Jepsen hasn’t given up a run since his first appearance of the season.
“We need some guys that are capable of coming in there and getting those outs,” Scioscia said. “We’re going to look at that very closely.”
The Angels bullpen is struggling with more than inconsistency. It also has been affected by injuries to right-hander Dane De La Rosa, who pitched in 75 games as a rookie last year, and left-hander Sean Burnett, who had a 2.76 ERA in 212 games over three years in Washington but has pitched in only 13 games since signing with the Angels after the 2012 season.
Those absences have severely tested the bullpen depth. So Kohn says it helps to forget the bad days quickly.
“With a reliever you always have to have a short memory,” said Kohn, the only Angels reliever with a win. “You come in after the game, you put your street clothes on, now you become an average Joe. You’re no longer a baseball player.
“It took me so long to realize that you can’t take it home with you. You’re a reliever. You’re going to be back in there the next day. If you carry over those games that you failed in, the next day you’re just going to keep failing.”
In the meantime the relievers are closing ranks, just like a good offensive line would do in football.
“We have to get some stuff figured out as far as the late innings,” Smith said. “We’re a unit down there, we’re a group, and try to stay as positive as we can.”