Angels closer Ernesto Frieri has given up no runs and five hits, struck out… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
The more Ernesto Frieri struggled in late July and early August, the more he was consumed by fear, not so much of losing his closer job, which the Angels right-hander eventually did, but of his ability to support his growing family.
Frieri, 28, is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, and a strong season as closer could boost his salary from $530,000 this season to about $3.5 million in 2014. A poor final two months could cost him $1 million or more.
Money is not the biggest motivator for Frieri, who has the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a Little Leaguer and is grateful for every day in the big leagues. But when you're married, with a baby girl and another child on the way, and you're financially supporting numerous relatives back home in Colombia, money is important.
"I don't know how to fly a plane, I'm not a doctor. I'm a baseball player, this is what I do," said Frieri, who threw a scoreless ninth inning to close a 6-2 victory over Tampa Bay on Thursday night at Angel Stadium.
"When you have a short career like I have — three years in the big leagues — when you have a family and you take care of your mom and grandma and other people, you start worrying about the future when things aren't going good."
Frieri, who had a 2.76 earned-run average and converted 24 of 26 save opportunities in his first 41 games through July 20, worried himself right out of the closer role.
In a seven appearances from July 23 to Aug. 6, Frieri went 0-3 with a 23.14 ERA and two blown saves, giving up 12 runs and 15 hits, including three homers, in 4 2/3 innings. Opponents hit .556 against him during the stretch.
Did he feel the Angels lost confidence in him?
"Sure, it's natural to think that way, but I understood it," Frieri said. "They want to win. They told me they were giving me a little break, letting me rest."
Manager Mike Scioscia moved Dane De La Rosa to closer and let Frieri, who has struggled to master a second pitch to go with his lively 95-mph fastball, find his bearings in lower-leverage situations.
It didn't take long. Beginning with an Aug. 10 outing in Cleveland, Frieri has allowed no runs and five hits, struck out 15 and walked two in 11 2/3 innings of 10 games, lowering his ERA from 4.79 to 3.84 and reclaiming his closer job.
Frieri has converted 30 of 34 save opportunities on the season, including an impressive five-out, four-strikeout save in Milwaukee on Sunday.
"He had a rough two-week stretch," Scioscia said, "but even with that, his save percentage is right in line with what you'd expect from a top closer."
Frieri credits several talks with team psychologist Ken Ravizza and the support of teammates and coaches with fueling his rebound. "Everyone gave me support, telling me to stay positive, you're better than this, keep fighting," Frieri said. "I'm just having fun right now."
Much as his teammates did against Rays left-hander David Price on Thursday night. The Angels were 12-22 against left-handed starters and were hitting .244 against left-handers before going 11 for 18 with six runs against Price in the first three innings.
Collin Cowgill hit a three-run double in the second, and the Angels bunched five straight hits, including Mark Trumbo's double, Josh Hamilton's RBI single, Luis Jimenez's double and Kole Calhoun's RBI single, in a three-run third.
Jerome Williams, 0-8 with a 6.58 ERA in his previous 13 starts, gave up two runs
and six hits, struck out seven and walked two in 6 1/3 innings for his first win since June 12.