OAKLAND — Mike Scioscia won't declare that Ernesto Frieri is his new closer — he'd still like the option of using veteran left-hander Scott Downs at the end of games — but the Angels manager's actions and Frieri's performance suggest the 26-year-old right-hander has assumed that key role.
Frieri struck out three of four batters in the 11th inning Wednesday for his first big league save, nailing down the Angels' 3-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics that featured Alberto Callaspo's clutch two-out, two-run double in the top of the inning.
Frieri was acquired May 3 from the San Diego Padres, for whom he was a middle reliever. Since being traded to the Angels for two minor league players, he has not given up a hit in 82/3 innings over nine games, striking out 19 and walking six. Only six of the 32 batters he has faced with the Angels have put the ball in play.
Demoted closer Jordan Walden, who threw a scoreless ninth Wednesday, is regaining his form. And Downs, who threw a scoreless 10th, has not given up a run in 13 innings. So what was the team's weakest area — its bullpen — now looks like a strength.
"You can see some definite roles forming," Scioscia said. "It's great to be able to slot Downs wherever we think he's going to be most effective. And if you look at what Ernie has meant since coming over and Walden regaining his form, we're much more comfortable with how we can hold leads."
What attracted General Manager Jerry Dipoto to Frieri, who throws a lively 93-mph fastball out of a somewhat unorthodox, across-the-body motion, was his deception.
"He has a history of missing bats," Dipoto said.
Control problems prevented Frieri from a late-inning role in San Diego, but he made a commitment to pitching more aggressively after the trade, and it has yielded remarkable results.
"Before, I would try to hit the inside or outside corner — now, I'm throwing it right down the middle and letting my natural movement take the ball to the corners," Frieri said. "I have to be honest with myself. I'm not the kind of pitcher who can hit his spots, because my ball moves so much."
Frieri's save capped a superb day on the mound for the Angels, who got eight impressive innings from Jered Weaver, who gave up one run and three hits, including Seth Smith's score-tying solo home run in the sixth.
It marked the 11th time since 2010 that Weaver threw at least seven innings and gave up one earned run or fewer, only to receive a loss or no-decision.
"But getting the win eased the sting of that, for sure," said Weaver, the Angels' ace.
The Angels, who moved to within seven games of Texas in the American League West, backed Weaver with two strong defensive plays. Two batters before Smith's homer, second baseman Howie Kendrick dived to his left to smother Coco Crisp's grounder and threw to first for the out.
In the seventh, center fielder Mike Trout raced to the wall for Josh Donaldson's two-out drive and made a leaping catch as he crashed into the fence.
Kendrys Morales sparked the winning rally with a one-out walk against reliever Jordan Norberto, and pinch-runner Peter Bourjos took third on Kendrick's two-out single.
Callaspo, who walked and scored in the third inning on Maicer Izturis' two-out single, fouled off three two-strike pitches before hitting a double into the left-field corner to drive in Bourjos and Kendrick.
"That was some kind of at-bat," Scioscia said. "There were a variety of pitches in different locations; he fouled off some tough pitches, got a ball he could hit and squared it up to left field."