In his first game as the Angels’ new closer, Joe Smith pitched the ninth inning with a three-run lead. In his second game, he pitched the ninth with a two-run lead.
Pressure? He laughed at the thought. In five years as the setup man for the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central, where the Detroit Tigers were the bullies on the block, Smith was the guy summoned when Miguel Cabrera came up and the Indians desperately needed a double play.
“Bases loaded and one out, facing Miggy, or a three-run lead and pitch one inning?” Smith said. “I’ll take the three-run lead and pitch one inning every day.”
Smith is expected to be in the closer’s role Friday when the Angels open a three-game series against the Texas Rangers at Angel Stadium, though the team says that Ernesto Frieri’s demotion is temporary, that he will at some point return to the ninth inning and Smith will reclaim the eighth inning, and sometimes the seventh.
That is just fine with Smith, who is in the first year of a three-year, $15.75-million contract.
“You’ve got some guys that want to pitch in a certain role,” Smith said. “I’m not one of them.”
Frieri had two saves — and two blown saves — when the Angels demoted him last week. Smith got his save opportunities on Monday and Tuesday, and converted them both.
The glaring statistical difference in production so far is the home run. Smith has faced 50 batters without giving up a home run; Frieri has faced 49 batters and given up five.
The glaring statistical difference in profiles is the fastball velocity — Frieri at 94 mph, Smith at a below-average 89 mph.
“I understand it,” Smith said, “the power pitcher with strikeout stuff shutting down the game. Maybe I’ve got a little bit of bias, because I’m not a power pitcher.”
Smith wanted to become a closer, but he found Billy Wagner ahead of him with the New York Mets, then Kerry Wood and Chris Perez after he was traded to Cleveland. Still, after the Indians soured on Perez, Smith said they did not make a pitch to keep him as their closer and declined to match the offer he received from the Angels.
Smith, 30, said he got offers from the Dodgers, Mets, Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies before signing with the Angels. The Dodgers offered two years, the Angels three.
“They both have great teams,” he said. “I wanted to stay in the American League. That was a big thing for me. I don’t really know why.
“If the Dodgers would have offered three, I can’t say hands-down I would have gone there.”
In each of his final three seasons in Cleveland, Smith had an earned-run average under 3.00, and more than two strikeouts for every walk. He said no team offered him a job as a closer.
“I don’t think anybody really came out and said that,” Smith said. “A couple teams said, ‘Maybe.’ That doesn’t bother me.”
Smith believes he could do the job. He gets outs, after all, and he does not subscribe to the theory that outs in the ninth inning are somehow more difficult to get than other outs.
“I’m not one of those guys that thinks of that as a different animal,” he said.
If his team wants him to get those outs in the seventh or eighth inning, so be it. But he did admit to a certain thrill on Monday, when the bullpen gates opened at Angel Stadium, the closer entered the field, and his music echoed across the ballpark.
He picked the music — “My Kind of Party” by country star Jason Aldean.
And what went through his mind as he heard the song?
“Man, that was sweet,” Smith recalled. “Now let’s go get some outs.”
The Angels are expected to recall hot-hitting utility player Grant Green, a former USC standout, from triple-A Salt Lake on Friday. The 26-year-old infielder hit .365 with 11 extra-base hits and 28 runs batted in in 25 games and played the last six games in left field in an effort to increase his versatility.
The right-handed-hitting Green, whose best position is second base, can also play third base and shortstop. He could take playing time away from struggling left fielder J.B. Shuck (.156), and he will also be an option at designated hitter.
Staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.