Angels catcher Chris Iannetta congratulates closer Ernesto Frieri after… (David Kohl / Associated…)
CINCINNATI — Ernesto Frieri spent seven weeks working on a second pitch to go with his lively 95-mph fastball, and he gained enough confidence in a changeup and cut fastball that, by the end of spring training, he said he was ready to take both into the season.
So what happened when the right-hander was summoned for his first save opportunity, in the 13th inning of Monday's opener against the Cincinnati Reds? He fell back on the familiar, using his fastball on 16 of 18 pitches — the other two were sliders — while preserving a 3-1 victory.
"It's not that I don't trust those other pitches, I just trust my fastball so much," Frieri said. "In any situation, to any type of hitter, I'm going to attack him with my best pitch. If I get into trouble, I'm going to use my best stuff, and that's always been my fastball."
That approach worked pretty well in 2012, when Frieri went 4-2 with a 2.32 earned-run average and converted 23 of 26 save opportunities, striking out 80 and walking 26 in 541/3 innings.
But Frieri attributed several late-season meltdowns to the lack of a secondary pitch that would keep hitters off his fastball. His slider is admittedly not very good, so he knows he'd benefit by adding an effective changeup or cutter. Throwing those in the heat of battle, though, will take a leap of faith.
"I'm going to continue to develop those pitches," Frieri, 27, said. "But the fastball is what got me to the big leagues — it's given me everything I have — and I'm going to keep getting hitters out with it. This spring, I worked on stuff. Now, there's no working on stuff. We have to execute, make good pitches and get people out."
Ryan Madson has taken a lap around the calendar in his rehabilitation from last April's Tommy John surgery, but the Angels reliever has found the last hurdle toughest to clear.
Madson felt tightness in his elbow after throwing a 40-pitch, high-intensity bullpen workout March 27 and was shut down for about a week. The right-hander returned to a mound Wednesday but only for a light, 15-pitch session.
"Sometimes it's a trust factor; sometimes it's that little hurdle of discomfort you want to get over," pitching coach Mike Butcher said of the final stages of rehab. "It's like a scab you're picking at that doesn't heal, and it finally goes away."
Butcher considered Madson's setback minor and insisted the closer is "not back to square one." Madson will increase his pitch counts and the intensity of his bullpen sessions "as he can tolerate," Butcher said. An April return appears highly unlikely.
"As you go through the phases of rehab, this is common," Butcher said. "Nobody likes to have a setback where you're like 'Gosh, man, is this ever going to be over with?' But he's been pretty patient and understands these things do happen."