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Smith getting second wind at the right time

ANAHEIM -- One of the biggest pieces in the Angels' push back into the thick of the American League playoff hunt over the last few days -- they're 3 1/2 games back of the Astros in the AL West after Saturday's 3-2 win over the division leaders, and two behind the Rangers for the second AL Wild Card spot -- has been Joe Smith.

The Angels' setup man has bounced back from one of the worst stretches of his career -- a 14.21 ERA over his eight outings prior to Friday's series opener -- to shut down the Astros' biggest bats two nights in a row.

And after the Angels' win on Saturday, Smith said that, with 20 regular-season games left to play, they still want the division.

"Who wants to go to the Wild Card?" Smith said. "I don't think anybody does. At the beginning of the year, you set out to win your division and go into the playoffs and win the World Series. Our goals are still within reach."

On Friday, Smith -- who makes his living generating ground balls -- induced an eighth-inning double play from Jose Altuve, then struck out Carlos Correa to protect the Angels' one-run lead. On Saturday, pitching the eighth in a 2-2 game, he worked around an Altuve double by striking out Correa again and getting a weak inning-ending chopper from Carlos Gomez.

"They're pretty good, and they're young, but I'm supposed to be able to get those guys out," Smith said. "If I would've faced them two weeks ago, I probably wouldn't have."

Smith said it's been a long, tough, up-and-down season in which he's had to deal with nagging injuries while pitching heavy workloads. From Aug. 12-29, Smith pitched 11 times -- including four days in a row from Aug. 16-19 -- a stretch that ended with a five-run shelling in Cleveland in which Smith didn't record a single out.

"I think that Joe has been -- there's a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that people don't know about, and people are battling through injuries or pitching when they don't exactly feel great," said closer Huston Street, pointing to that 11-outing span. "Those have consequences on your arm. And Joe's one of those guys who will push himself to the Nth degree.

"He's one of the best relievers of the last five years. He's going to continue to be. That's why Sosh sticks with him."

But Smith said he's healthy now. The ball feels good coming out of his hand again. More importantly, he said, the Angels are playing meaningful September games against the teams they're chasing. After Sunday's finale against the Astros, the Angels have three more games against Houston, and four each against the Rangers and Twins, both of whom they trail in the Wild Card standings.

"I didn't see us rolling away with [the division] like we did last year," Smith said. "Houston got better. Texas got better. … We're playing the right teams at the end, too. When we win it means something."

So that up-and-down season he's been grinding through? It doesn't matter anymore.

"Throw the stats out the window, in my opinion," Smith said. "Now it's just about: How do we get ourselves playing past Oct. 4?"

David Adler is an associate reporter for Follow him on Twitter @_dadler.
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