Angels' bullpen will be critical down the stretch

BY foxsports • September 24, 2012

As the Angels prepare for the final nine games of the regular season – games that will either lead to the playoffs or to a winter of discontent – there’s little doubt which area will likely decide their fate.

The bullpen. 

Manager Mike Scioscia proved that on Sunday when he used three relief pitchers – Garrett Richards, Scott Downs and Ernesto Frieri – to get the last three outs of a 4-1 win over the Chicago White Sox. It was all about favorable lefty-righty matchups. 

Scioscia is managing the Angels’ remaining games as if they’re postseason games. They’re not, of course, but there will be no postseason unless his team continues to press forward.

 That means the bullpen will be called upon virtually every night. Scioscia hasn’t given up on his relievers, despite the fact they’ve been a glaring weakness for most of the season. Consider their 22 blown saves, more than any big-league team except the Milwaukee Brewers (27) and St. Louis Cardinals (22).

 “Depth is the problem, having enough good arms available every night,” Scioscia said.

 He isn’t pointing a finger at the bullpen – not when you take into account a sluggish offensive start in April and lapses among the starting pitchers – but if the relievers had cut their blown saves in half, the Angels would have 97 wins and be in control in the American League West.

 Instead, they’re contending for one of two AL wild card berths as they head into a three-game series against the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday night at Angel Stadium.

 “At times our bullpen has functioned at a very high level,” Scioscia said. “But it hasn’t been with the consistency and continuity that we needed to put us in a better position right now. I don’t want to put it all on our bullpen because there are some other things as far as our starting pitching and things like that. You can point to the first month of the season and talk about our offense, which was really stuck in the mud.” 

Scioscia has continued to show a high regard for Frieri, who lost two games in a span of six days that were of critical importance to the Angels’ playoff chances. 

Frieri recorded a one-inning save Saturday against the White Sox, then came back Sunday to retire the last batter in the ninth and give the Angels a sweep of Chicago. 

The right-hander has converted 20 of 23 save chances since he was acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres in early May, but he has struggled since the All-Star break in July, in part because of a reliance on his fastball and not enough help in the bullpen. 

Scioscia said Frieri has an effective slider, but it’s a matter of finding consistency with it that will determine his long-term success. 

“For Ernie to get to the next level, much like Jordan Walden, there’s no doubt they need their repertoire to be more consistent,” he said. “With Ernie and Jordan, because they’re both power pitchers, their ability to spin the ball on some off counts for strikes is going to be huge in their development.

 “He has another pitch, it’s just the consistency of it.” 

With a 2½-game deficit, the Angels will need Frieri and the rest of the relief group to keep pace in the wild card race. A strong, resilient bullpen could be the difference between making the playoffs and falling short. 

“The bottom line is we’re here and we’re playing at a high level now,” Scioscia said. “We need to continue through these last games and hopefully get a break.”