Baseball / Sports

Angels' relievers aim to start zeroing in again

ANAHEIM, Calif.--Joe Smith was asked last week if he knew how long it had been since he'd given up a run. The Angels' setup man responded by plugging his index fingers into his ears and walking away.

He wasn't being rude. The sidearm-throwing right-hander really didn't want to know that he'd gone 222/3 innings over 23 appearances from June 24 to Aug. 9 without allowing a run.

"Every day is a new day," Smith said. "All that matters is winning. Whatever happened yesterday, if we won and everyone threw up zeros, let's do it again. From here on out, that's all it's about. Getting wins."

Smith's streak ended Sunday when he gave up a three-run homer to Yoenis Cespedes in the eighth inning of a 3-1 loss to Boston. Smith also gave up a run in the eighth inning Wednesday night, but it didn't cost the Angels, who held on for a 4-3 win over Philadelphia.

If Smith, who is 4-1 with a 2.21 earned-run average in 57 games, can't snap out of his two-game funk, the line of questioning will change, from what's going right to what's suddenly gone wrong. And that can be uncomfortable for a reliever too.

"When you're struggling, you have so many people coming at you, it becomes a frustrating thing that you don't want to talk about," fellow reliever Kevin Jepsen said. "You know how much you're doing to get out of it, and you're going, 'OK, can everyone stop reminding me how tough things are going for me?'

"Then, when you're going good, you don't want to jinx it. So, yeah, it becomes, 'Just don't talk to me for six months and I'll see you in the off-season.' It's part of the deal."

Jepsen had a similar streak, going 22 innings over 23 games from June 24 to Aug. 10 without giving up an earned run. That ended on Monday, an off day, when a Major League Baseball scoring change turned the run Jepsen allowed in an Aug. 5 loss to the Dodgers from unearned to earned.

"I've never given up a run six days after the fact -- that was a first," Jepsen said jokingly. "On the off day, too. We were on the beach, (Mike) Trout looks at me and says, 'Hey, you know they just gave you a run?' Joe's streak, my streak, gone."

That didn't ruin Jepsen's day, or season. The right-hander is 0-1 with a 1.79 ERA in 58 games, and his resurgence, along with the winter signing of Smith and midseason trades for Huston Street and Jason Grilli, has played a huge role in the bullpen's transformation from inconsistent and unreliable to lockdown.

Jepsen is throwing his 97-mph fastball consistently for strikes, and his decision to scrap the cut fastball he threw for several seasons in favor of a changeup has paid huge dividends.

"Sometimes the cutter got me into more trouble because it was so hard, it wasn't really an off-speed pitch," Jepsen said. "I threw it at 90, 93 mph, and there wasn't enough separation with the fastball.

"Plus, with the cutter, everything was going into a left-handed hitter and away from a right-handed hitter. My curve and changeup are both 84, 86 mph, but they go in different directions."

The cutter also required Jepsen to manipulate the ball, and by eliminating that, he feels his four-seam fastball has more life. He's getting his curve over -- with it, he struck out Ryan Howard looking to end the seventh inning Wednesday -- and the changeup has been effective.

"If I can't throw a curve for strikes that day, the changeup gives me an off-speed option to throw in the zone so they can't just sit fastball," Jepsen said. "It allows me to pitch, not just go out there and throw."

Manager Mike Scioscia said it is "no fluke" that the team's 27-9 surge from early June to mid-July coincided with the bullpen's improvement.

And the relief work, the manager said, has helped the Angels "keep our heads above water" while the offense has struggled since the All-Star break.

Relievers combined for a 4.36 ERA and a .243 opponents' average and converted 16 of 26 save opportunities in the first 66 games. In 50 games since, entering Friday night's game at Texas, the bullpen has combined for a 2.30 ERA, .207 opponents' average and converted 17 of 20 save opportunities.

And an already deep and diverse bullpen should receive another boost Saturday when rookie right-hander Mike Morin, who is 3-3 with a 2.36 ERA in 41 games, comes off the disabled list.

"The way the season started, it felt like, 'Here we go again,'" Jepsen said. "There was constant movement, guys coming up from the minor leagues, going down, roles changing. But right now, it's solid. The way we feel now, if the starter gives us the lead after five innings, we're good."

Eckstein departs

Player information coach Rick Eckstein has left the Angels to become an assistant baseball coach at the University of Kentucky.

Eckstein, the older brother of former Angels shortstop David Eckstein, served his last game with the Angels on Wednesday night. His duties will be assumed by Rico Brogna, a special assistant to the general manager who will travel with the team to Texas for this weekend's series.

Eckstein, 41, joined the Angels last winter after spending 41/2 seasons as the Washington Nationals hitting coach. In his newly created position, he was essentially a liaison between the coaching staff and scouting department.

Eckstein, who will serve as Kentucky's hitting coach, played for Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson at the University of Florida in the 1990s.

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