ANAHEIM -- After Scott Downs and Michael Kohn came out of the bullpen to record back-to-back strikeouts in the seventh, ending the inning with the tying run stranded at third base, the Angels scored three runs in the next two frames, ballooning their lead while en route to a 6-2 victory over the Yankees in front of a second straight 40,000-plus crowd at Angel Stadium.
It was hardly a coincidence.
A similar occurrence took place on Friday, when Kevin Jepsen preserved a two-run lead by working out of a two-on, none-out situation in the eighth. And over the course of this three-game winning streak, the Angels' bullpen has given up one run (none earned) in 7 2/3 innings, giving up two hits and one walk while striking out 10.
Small sample size, yes.
But bridging the gap was one of the Angels' biggest problems early this season -- tied for first with Josh Hamilton's struggles at the plate -- and the bullpen was the main area the Angels wanted to improve heading into the year.
That, perhaps, is the most positive sign to be gleaned from a three-game winning streak that may or may not sustain itself.
"It's what we talked about in Spring Training -- passing the baton," Downs said. "In the bullpen, that's what you do. Right now, it's getting the ball to the next guy and keeping us in the game."
Howie Kendrick stayed hot, going 3-for-3 to give him nine hits in his last four games and put his batting average at .336. Tommy Hanson pitched 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball, stomaching four stolen bases off his slow delivery and using some better fastball velocity to record a season-high eight strikeouts. And the offense once again added on late, giving them a combined 11 runs in the last three innings of the last three games.
But a better bullpen was a big key to the Angels' turnaround last season, when Ernesto Frieri came over from the Padres, put zeroes up all over the place, allowed Mike Scioscia to establish roles and paved the way for the Angels to go 38-21 heading into the All-Star break.
The Angels don't figure to get an addition like that this year. Heck, they'd be thrilled to get either of their two big offseason additions -- Ryan Madson or Sean Burnett -- before the end of July.
Somehow, Downs, Kohn, Jepsen, Frieri and Garrett Richards will have to keep plugging away.
"We're not going to be perfect -- nobody is -- but when one guy feeds off the next and the next guy feeds off the next, it's one of those things," Downs said. "Everybody wants to just do their part. That's the main thing. If everybody comes in with the same mentality, then we're going to be OK. We have a pretty good bullpen, even though we've had injuries."
Saturday's turning point came in the top of the seventh, with the Angels nursing a one-run lead, Ichiro Suzuki on third base after his second stolen base and none out. Hanson struck out Thomas Neal, Downs struck out the lefty-hitting Reid Brignac and Kohn struck out Chris Stewart, three hitters representing the bottom third of the Yankees' lineup, to keep the Angels' lead intact.
The offense then tacked on runs, and Jepsen and Frieri recorded six straight outs, giving the Angels (30-38) their fourth winning streak of at least three games this season and handing the Yankees (37-31) a season-high-tying fifth consecutive loss.
"We're in a low right now, but we're going to turn it around -- I have no doubt in that," said Yankees starting pitcher David Phelps, charged with four runs in six-plus innings of a loss. "I have faith in all the guys that we are going to go out and get the job done tomorrow."
Coming into his eighth start of the year, and his third since missing three weeks on the restricted list, Hanson was "the most confident I've felt all year." With a fastball that was a couple ticks higher in the early innings and an effective, biting curveball, the 26-year-old right-hander walked only one batter and scattered five hits in an 84-pitch outing, moving to 4-2 with a 3.94 ERA on the year.
"I feel like my mechanics are coming along, I feel like I'm throwing the ball where I want to throw it, for the most part, and I felt good warming up in the bullpen today," said Hanson, his ERA below 4.00 for the first time this year. "I feel like for the most part I carried it over into the game."
The Angels have now won 27 of their last 39 home games against the Yankees -- and Kendrick is batting .354 for his career against New York.
The Angels' second baseman sports a Major League-leading .418 batting average since May 14. And around him, the Angels' situational hitting is improving. They got on the board in the second on a solo homer from Erick Aybar that hugged the right-field foul pole, then got a two-out, broken-bat RBI single from Albert Pujols in the third and a run-scoring single from Aybar in the sixth.
After their pitching staff got out of trouble in the seventh, the Angels tacked on a couple more in the bottom half on an RBI double by Hamilton and a bases-loaded walk from Kendrick. Then, Pujols laced an eighth-inning RBI single to give him three straight multihit games -- and cap the type of game the Angels will need to duplicate many times over to get back in the race.
"We just have to play good baseball," Kendrick said. "We're not worried about the standings or whatever, it's just about winning. As long as we get an opportunity to try to win the game, I like our chances."
Thanks to the bullpen, they've been getting that lately.
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.