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Frieri working his way back to closer role

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ANAHEIM -- Joe Smith, 3 for 3 in save opportunities for the Angels, went into Sunday's game against the Rangers still in his temporary role as the closer.

But fellow right-hander Ernesto Frieri, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning to set up Smith in a 5-3 Angels victory Saturday, is closer to regaining the role, manager Mike Scioscia said.

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"Our optimum bullpen is really with Ernie back in the ninth inning and being able to move Joe Smith around," Scioscia said. "But we need some bullpen depth to evolve before we can push Joe that far.

"Right now, last night Ernie matched up well with the hitters coming up in the eighth inning and we let Joe handle the ninth. We'll stay that way today and see how it goes. At some point, maybe matchups are better for Joe a little bit earlier and we can have Ernie for the ninth. It's encouraging where Ernie's been his last three outings."

A return to Smith pitching in the eighth inning (or earlier) and Frieri working the ninth has been Scioscia's stated intention since the switch of Smith to closer was made nearly two weeks ago while Frieri was struggling. 

Asked if he's back to being his old self, Frieri -- who had 37 saves in 2013 -- said: "I'm working. I'm working. I don't want to say that I'm 100 percent back because I still have to work on other stuff. I still need to work on making my pitches, keeping the ball down whenever I want it to and just mix my fastball with the slider like I did today."

He said he's close, though.

"I just need to execute my fastball," Frieri said. "At this level, you can throw 100. But if you leave it right down the middle, you're going to get hit. Look at [Jered] Weaver, man. He doesn't throw hard. But he paints the corners and he elevates his fastball whenever he wants to. And he mixes up his pitches pretty good. That's what you need to do to pitch at this level. You can't throw the ball not knowing where it's going to land."

The slider is also a work in progress.

"I've been getting more confidence with that pitch," he said. "And the guys behind the plate -- Hank [Conger] and Chris [Ianetta] -- they're giving me confidence in it. They're calling it more often."

Earl Bloom is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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