Angels’ Joe Smith relishing closer role

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Joe Smith didn’t know he’d be the Angels’ closer at this point in the season, but now that he is, he’s embracing his role.

Ernesto Frieri is gone, traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates last week. Jason Grilli is here, acquired in the Frieri deal. The benefactor is Smith, who acknowledges that as a relief pitcher, it’s important to be prepared for anything.

Smith pitched the ninth inning of the Angels’ 5-2 victory over the Houston Astros on Friday night at Angel Stadium and now is 3 for 3 in save situations since converting from setup man to closer.

Winning the job because Frieri couldn’t manage it is not something Smith wanted to see, but in baseball these things happen.

And being a closer is something every reliever covets.

"It’s awesome," Smith said. "If you ask anybody in the bullpen, ‘Do you want to close?’ they’re going to be like ‘Hell, yeah.’ It’s fun. If you’re playing this game, you want to pitch the ninth inning if you’re in the bullpen.

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"Do I like how it happened? No. I would rather Ernie throw the ball and we just go about our business and win ballgames. But that’s how this game is."

Smith saved both ends of a doubleheader Tuesday against the Chicago White Sox and retired all eight batters he faced on the Angels’ six-game road trip. Friday, he came in after Kevin Jepsen and Grilli threw scoreless innings and finished off the win, although he walked one batter in the ninth.

"You see how great they were tonight, getting in and out of there," said starter Matt Shoemaker who won his sixth game and struck out seven, breaking a club record by recording 57 strikeouts in his first 10 career starts. "It’s definitely great for our team."

With Smith working the ninth, and with Grilli, Jepsen and Mike Morin throwing well in relief, the Angels have a level of confidence that leads will be protected by the bullpen. Smith has staked a claim to the closer’s job and will keep it until he wavers.

"Right now, we’re going to keep him in that ninth-inning bubble, and hopefully continue that (bullpen) depth to hold leads," manager Mike Scioscia said. "He’s doing a great job, has taken the challenge and is moving forward with it."

The departure of Frieri at least means that Smith will come to the ballpark knowing what his role is. At the start of the season, he was a setup specialist but then closed games when Frieri struggled.

"Any time you come to the workplace and know what’s asked of you, you’ll have success," Smith said. "You’ll be happier, you know what’s expected of you and you go out and try to do that every night. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way. It’s not that simple, and that’s part of being in the bullpen. You’ve just got to be ready to do whatever’s asked of you."

The Angels came back from a 2-1 deficit with four runs in the third, two coming on a double by David Freese. In his past 11 games, Freese — who was hitting .193 at the end of April — is batting .368 (14 for 38) with six extra-base hits and nine RBIs in his past 11 games.

The Angels also stayed hot at home, winning for the 13th time in 14 games at Angel Stadium.