OAKLAND, Calif. As Ernesto Frieri buttoned his dress shirt and packed his bag for the flight to Seattle, he couldn't suppress a smile. He waited his entire big-league career for the chance he got Wednesday afternoon, and now that it was over, he looked ready to burst.
A save. That's what Frieri wanted when he came to the Angels in a trade with the San Diego Padres this month -- a chance to come into a close game and preserve a lead.
"I was so excited," he said at the end of the day. "I waited a long time with the Padres and they never game me a chance. The Angels trusted me a little bit more. I was ready for this."
Frieri is not quite the de facto closer for the Angels, but he, Scott Downs and Jordan Walden have become a kind of three-headed closer for a team that has turned a weakness into a strength. Those three each pitched one hitless, scoreless inning in a 3-1, 11-inning win over the Oakland A's.
Frieri struck out the side in the final inning for the save, his first in 114 career appearances in the majors. In nine games since the trade, Frieri has worked 8 23 innings without giving up a hit or a run. Incredibly, he has 19 strikeouts.
Although the left-handed Downs remains the go-to guy in the ninth inning, manager Mike Scioscia is also inclined to use him in certain matchup situations. Wednesday, he used Downs in the ninth inning to keep the game tied, then went to Walden, who pitched a 1-2-3 10th inning, and finished with Frieri.
Frieri struck out Jemile Weeks and Coco Crisp, walked Josh Reddick, then fanned Seth Smith.
"We can see some definite roles forming," Scioscia said. "It's great to be able to slide Scotty Downs to wherever we think he's going to be effective, but if you look at what Ernie's meant to our pen and look at Jordan Walden regaining his form, we're much more comfortable with how the game is set up and holding leads with those guys pitching well."
Frieri, 26, has been beyond a welcome surprise. The Angels acquired him May 3 in exchange for infielder Alexi Amarista and pitcher Don Roach in the hope he would strengthen a struggling bullpen that had difficulty keeping games close. He's done that and more.
"I'm lucky," Frieri said. "I'm lucky that they've given me this opportunity. But this is not about me. This is about helping the team. I'm here, I'm ready to go out there and pitch and help the team win some games."
The Angels kept an extra pitcher on the roster after going 13 innings Sunday against the Padres, but as they headed to Seattle for four games against the Mariners, they figured to make a move. It's expected that they'll designate pitcher David Pauley (0-1, 4.82 ERA in four games) for assignment and call up infielder Andrew Romine from Triple-A Salt Lake.
That likely move will reduce their bullpen to 12 pitchers, a more manageable number, and give them an extra bench player. Romine, 26, is batting .312 in 40 games for the Bees.
Combined, their late-innings trio of Downs, Frieri and Walden has given up just four earned runs in 34 23 innings, a 1.04 ERA and that includes an ineffective early stretch of games by Walden, who lost his closer's role to Downs on April 27.
Downs, in fact, is one of just two pitchers in the majors who have worked in 10 or more games without yielding an earned run.
Those kinds of numbers give confidence to the Angels' starters. Jered Weaver, who allowed one run in eight innings but left with a no-decision, made that point afterward.
"It was only a matter of time before it turned around," he said. "Those guys are great down there. They've been clutch for us, not only the one-inning guys, but Pauley has done a great job for us too when we needed some help after a starter gets knocked out early."
Pauley, of course, probably won't be around much longer, but the Angels are moving forward. Their offense remains a troublesome area they've scored three runs or less in five of their past seven games so for now, pitching will have to carry them.
"We haven't played to the level we need to or want to, but we're not looking for instant gratification," Scioscia said. "We're looking for the grind. We want to keep pounding, and then, in 30 days, see what the standings say, or 60 days. It's going to be a process. It's not going to be anything where we turn this thing around in a heartbeat."
That's been clear from virtually the start of the season. But with their starting staff, and now their bullpen, the Angels remain hopeful.