SEATTLE -- The Angels' bullpen is "still evolving," in the words of manager Mike Scioscia. But it appears to be rounding into form after a woeful start to the season.
Sean Burnett has returned after a long rehabilitation from August left elbow surgery, Ernesto Frieri has regained his command and confidence, and the bullpen is starting to represent the deep and effective group that was expected at the start of the season -- the group that showed glimpses of greatness in Spring Training before ranking 25th in the Majors in ERA after the first six weeks of the season.
Since May 14, Angels relievers rank sixth in the Majors in ERA (2.03), fourth in the Majors in WHIP (1.01) and, perhaps most important with this group, sixth in the Majors in fewest walks per nine innings (2.36).
"We still need Dane [De La Rosa]; we know he can help us a lot," Frieri, speaking in Spanish, said in reference to the 31-year-old reliever who's on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Salt Lake. "But with the group we have now, we're doing the things we need to. We're attacking the strike zone, we're pitching ahead of the count. We're not starting with balls, we're not giving away free bases. That's what you have to do. And what we didn't do last year is, we're keeping games manageable."
Burnett faced Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer on Friday and Saturday, getting an inning-ending groundout and giving up a leadoff single as he gets back into a rhythm. Joe Smith has a 2.25 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP on the year. Fernando Salas has allowed just three runs in his last 17 appearances, striking out 16 and walking five. And Kevin Jepsen has retired 16 of his last 19 batters.
But the key is Frieri, who has a 0.71 ERA with 15 strikeouts and one walk since temporarily losing his job as closer on April 23.
"The confidence [is key], and getting back to the Ernesto Frieri who first showed up here with the Angels and was just enjoying this game and enjoying wearing this uniform," Frieri said. "To be pitching, and at the same time feel like I'm dreaming, like I can't believe I'm pitching for the Angels, I can't believe I'm playing for Albert Pujols. That helps me. To humble me, and know that it's a blessing, a privilege, to be where I am right now."
Hamilton day to day with bone bruise in thumb
SEATTLE -- Josh Hamilton is currently nursing a bone bruise in his left thumb, Angels doctors confirmed when they re-evaluated the slugger in Seattle on Monday.
The good news is that it isn't expected to be a major setback, and it's deemed unrelated to the surgical procedure that forced him to miss about six weeks on the disabled list. But Hamilton will have to take at least one day off from swinging the bat, then have to start his rehab assignment all over again.
"It's frustrating," Hamilton said after the Angels' 5-1 loss to the Mariners at Safeco Field. "You don't expect something like that to happen."
Hamilton went 2-for-4 with a double in his debut with Triple-A Salt Lake on Thursday, but was jammed badly while grounding out in a ninth-inning at-bat, then was a late scratch from the starting lineup on Friday and Saturday and stayed away from baseball activities altogether on Sunday.
The 33-year-old originally hoped to be activated by Monday's series opener in Seattle -- the place where he suffered a complete tear of the ulnar collateral ligament and a torn capsule while sliding into first base on April 8 -- but that'll have to wait.
Hamilton hopes to take batting practice again on Wednesday, and may rejoin the Salt Lake Bees in nearby Tacoma, Wash., where they play until Friday.
Still, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "Right now, it's day to day."
When Hamilton starts hitting again, he'll do so without a protective splint that was bothering him a little at the plate.
That splint, however, may have prevented a more serious setback.
"It just got in on me a little bit," Hamilton said of getting jammed on Thursday. "It probably would've almost been better if the bat had shattered, instead of absorbing all the force of it. And the splint I was wearing -- it was probably going to be my last day wearing it -- probably prevented my thumb from absorbing it like it should have. So it took more of the brunt and force."
Angels racking up come-from-behind wins
SEATTLE -- The Angels -- an American League-best 20-11 since April 21 -- are six games ahead of last year's pace, and more than half of their wins have been comeback efforts. Sunday's victory over the Royals, which saw them overcome a 3-0 deficit in the last three innings, marked the Angels' 15th come-from-behind win in 2014, tied with the White Sox and Tigers for the most in the Majors.
It points to a starting rotation that's keeping the team in games, leading the Majors with 6.31 innings per start heading into Monday's game.
It points to a bullpen that's rounding into form, with Sean Burnett returning after a long rehab from elbow surgery and Ernesto Frieri finally settling in.
And it points to a team that's starting to believe again, and getting to a point where they never feel they're out of games.
"It's showing that we don't quit," Angels center fielder Mike Trout said. "We get in a two- or three-run hole and we keep getting wins. We just keep having good at-bats, battling.
"We just don't let up. If they come up and score three runs, we have confidence that we can score some runs, too. You never know who's going to step up that day and come up with a big hit."
• Displaced Angels starter Hector Santiago was charged with five runs on eight hits in 2 2/3 innings in his first start for Triple-A Salt Lake on Sunday, walking four and striking out one. Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said the 26-year-old left-hander was "erratic."
"It's a work in progress," Scioscia added. "He's not just going to snap back into it."
• Left-hander Wade LeBlanc -- called up from Triple-A Salt Lake on Sunday -- wasn't listed on the Angels' lineup sheet on Monday, a strong indication that he's in line to take the ball in Thursday's series finale in Seattle. That, however, could hinge on whether or not he's needed out of the bullpen before that.
• Butcher was encouraged by De La Rosa's Sunday outing for Triple-A Salt Lake, when he needed just six pitches -- five of them strikes -- to pitch a 1-2-3 inning that included a strikeout. De La Rosa's fastball velocity sat mostly at 92 mph. It was the 31-year-old right-hander's third outing since returning to his rehab assignment.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.