Defending AL West champs look poised
Halos have dealt with adversity, are in striking range
ST. PETERSBURG -- Despite everything that has happened on the negative side of the ledger, this is no time to back away from the view that the 2009 Angels are still going to win the AL West.
This is not simply said by force of habit, because the Angels have won the division four of the past five years. There is no question that the Rangers are a team with a serious amount of emerging talent. But the fact that the Angels have managed to stay within arm's reach of the Rangers through genuinely adverse circumstances, speaks well of their future, at least the next four month's worth of future.
Look at the starting pitching that were missing for much of the early season: From Kelvim Escobar, an 18-game winner in 2007, to Ervin Santana, twice a 16-game winner, including last season, to John Lackey, a 19-game winner in 2007.
Beyond injury, there was tragedy; the death of 22-year-old Nick Adenhart, who was killed in a traffic accident. The driver of the vehicle that killed Adenhart and two companions has been charged with three counts of murder, drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident.
The Angels are still without two other starting alternatives due to injury, Dustin Moseley and Shane Loux. Scot Shields, a longtime staple in the Angels bullpen and one of the best setup men in the game, is also on the disabled list. And on the offensive side, Vladimir Guerrero, one of the leading run producers in the game, missed 35 games with an injury and in the two weeks since his return has not yet returned to his best work.
So if the current Angels don't present us with their usual clean, linear line of progress over the course of a season, there are valid reasons. The bullpen has been a particular source of dismay. The Angels have lost six games this season when leading after seven innings. Last year, the Angels lost six games in that category over the course of the entire season.
"There are a lot of good things that are happening with our club, but not as consistently as they need to," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We're very optimistic that we're going to put one good game after another. That's what we need to do, but right now it's been a little bit hit and miss. But we're healthier now than we were a month ago and we just need guys to get into the game and just start to do it on a consistent basis and then we'll see where we are.
"But we have some important pitchers back in Lackey and Santana in our rotation right now, and Escobar. We're still trying to find a little chemistry in the bullpen. Vlad's back in the lineup and when he starts swinging like he can, he'll be a difference-maker for us on the offensive side."
In their best games, the Angels still look like the Angels, which is to say alert, aggressive and victorious. Tuesday night they defeated the Rays, 4-3, behind yet another solid start by Jered Weaver. Weaver, with a 6-2 record and a 2.31 earned run average, is putting together a first half as good as any starting pitcher in the American League, who is not named Zack Greinke.
Here, Weaver was good enough to limit the Major Leagues' top run-scoring team to two runs over six innings, despite not having his best stuff.
"I just didn't have my fastball command tonight," Weaver said. "I was able to locate some pitches when I needed to."
The Angels made some outs on the bases in this game, but still demonstrated that putting relentless pressure on the opposition can make the difference.
A play in the first inning embodied what has worked for them and continues to work for them. Chone Figgins, on first base with none out, had to stop completely to avoid being hit by what became a single to right by Bobby Abreu. Under the circumstances, it appeared that Figgins had no chance to advance to third, but that belief wasn't shared by Figgins. He sped toward third, drawing a throw, and when the throw eluded third baseman Evan Longoria, Abreu was able to move up to second. That set up two runs that would technically be unearned. But in a larger sense Figgins had earned them with alert and aggressive base running.
"That's what we do over here," Figgins said. "First to third is a big key for us."
"That definitely set the stage with second and third and nobody out, as opposed to first and second with nobody out," Scioscia said. "That's a huge swing. You're not going to see that very often, especially with [Gabe] Gross in right field; that guy is a terrific defender.
"So for Figgie to have to stop to let that ball go through and then continue, getting to third base, that's a great base-running move. And then Bobby Abreu got to second and that was important for us."
The primary concern for the Angel's short-term future would be the bullpen. But this is also an issue for roughly 28 other clubs. Only the Red Sox appear to have truly sufficient quantity and quality in their relief corps. The Angels are far from alone in their concerns here, but they are used to having this area completely covered.
This is obviously not going to be a season in which the Angels absolutely dominate the division and win by 21 games as they did last year. But given everything that has happened to this team, its current status -- north of .500 and three games out of first place -- is not a calamity.
With most of the Angels' frontline pitching back to something resembling full heath, the overall outlook is brighter. They'll have some scratching and clawing, some struggling ahead, but that doesn't mean they won't win.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.