Once a liability, Angels’ bullpen becomes strength

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Their rotation is in a state of uncertainty and their offense is digging itself out of a rut, but as the Angels approach the final two months of the regular season, they know this much: At the end of games, their bullpen will carry them.

It didn’t used to be that way, but it is now. What was once a liability is now a strength, one that just might be the key to their postseason hopes.

The Angels closed out a 10-game homestand with a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers, and if one game can provide a team with a shot of momentum, this one probably did. Now they hit the road for eight games that will test their resolve even more: three at Baltimore, three more at Tampa Bay and two against the Dodgers.

It was their bullpen that carried them Sunday. After starter Hector Santiago pitched into the sixth and gave up just one run, relievers Mike Morin, Joe Smith and Huston Street retired the final 11 batters to preserve a win that came when David Freese broke a 1-1 with an eighth-inning homer off Tigers reliever Joba Chamberlain.

"It’s refreshing for us to get some wins when we’re not swinging the bat," manager Mike Scioscia said. "We did just enough, and we got some clutch hits, which are always going to be difference makers. Without swinging the bats to our potential and to come away with three out of four against a team like Detroit gives us some confidence moving forward."

There’s little question the bullpen is carrying a substantial load. The recent acquisition of Jason Grilli, Joe Thatcher and Street resulted in a major makeover, but roles are now defined, and those three, combined with Morin, Kevin Jepsen and Cory Rasmus, have given the Angels a rock-solid group.

"I feel like I came into a bullpen that was pitching really, really, really well and kind of on a streak," Street said. "You feel that down there. Everybody’s feeding off of each other, sharing information. I’m just the guy that gets the last three."

Morin, a 13th-round draft pick in 2012, has pitched well beyond his 23 years. He entered Sunday’s game in the sixth after Santiago gave up a one-out single to Austin Jackson and proceeded to strike out Ian Kinsler and two-time American League MVP Miguel Cabrera.

Intimidated by Cabrera’s presence? Not really.

"Obviously, you notice that it’s Cabrera, but you’re so locked in and your adrenalin is going so much, you almost don’t even notice that the hitter is there," Morin said. "You’re just focusing on the (catcher’s) glove."

Santiago gave the Angels a second consecutive strong start, allowing a first-inning run before retiring 14 in a row through the fifth inning. But he has no problem yielding to a bullpen that has been almost untouchable.

"You go five and keep us in the game, go six and keep us in the game, then clear the way for the bullpen," he said. "Those guys are coming in and getting the job done."

Through their first 66 outings, from the start of the season to June 15, Angels relievers had a collective 4.36 ERA and had blown 10 of 26 saves. Since then, their ERA is 2.45 and they’ve saved 13 games in 16 chances.

That kind of reliable work is something that could be critical down the stretch.

"We’re not asking any guys to do anything they haven’t done before," Scioscia said. "We’re not asking any guys to go above and beyond. The bullpen depth is there.

"We’re not going to ask a guy to go out there and reel off five straight games of zeros or five straight saves. Hopefully, we can manage them to where they stay fresh and effective."

So far, that’s happening.