ANAHEIM -- Very few things in baseball guarantee success, but the closest thing to it is quality starting pitching. That's why it's the most expensive commodity in this game, and that's why the Angels -- with five All-Stars currently making up their rotation -- seemed like such a sure shot for success.
But here they are, still alive but still fighting for their playoff lives with the regular season dwindling down. If the Angels are to make up the two-game gap that exists between them and the second American League Wild Card spot, this star-studded rotation, which has pitched as advertised lately, will have to continue to lead the way.
If they don't, the rotation's mystifying struggles earlier in the year may go down as the main reason why the Angels came up short.
"The rotation is the heartbeat of your team," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "It is. As talented a group of guys as they are, when they're off a little bit, it makes it tough to move forward. And when they're throwing the way they can, you can get on a roll like we are right now."
Of course, the rotation doesn't deserve the sole blame for the Angels' predicament. Early on, when the club started out 6-14, it was the offense that struggled mightily and the rotation that kept the Angels afloat. And throughout the year, the biggest overall weakness has been a rather thin bullpen, which leads the AL with 22 blown saves.
But for this team, perhaps more so than any club, wins and losses have practically run parallel to the state of the staff.
When the Angels began the second half 14-22, setting them back in the standings with the third-worst winning percentage in the AL, their rotation sported a collective 5.50 ERA (28th in the Majors), a 1.41 WHIP (23rd) and a 2.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio (tied for 22nd).
Since then, the Angels have gone 24-9, good for the best winning percentage (.727) in the AL. And during that span, the rotation has been lights-out, posting a 2.92 ERA (second in the Majors), a 1.07 WHIP (first) and a 3.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio (fifth).
"You're going to have speed bumps on the road," said ace Jered Weaver, an AL Cy Young Award contender who was practically immune to the earlier rotation struggles. "It's not going to be smooth sailing the whole way."
But four-fifths of a staff hardly ever struggles -- and then thrives -- all together like this.
Dan Haren, arguably baseball's most consistent starter the previous seven years, had a 4.90 ERA by mid-August, partly due to back problems and a slight dip in velocity. But he has a 2.45 ERA and four quality starts in his past six outings.
Ervin Santana was also on the verge of a nightmare season, at 5-10 with a 5.97 ERA by the end of July due to lacking command and a knack for the home run. Since then, he has gone 4-2 with a 2.88 ERA in nine starts.
C.J. Wilson has somewhat rebounded from an 11-start winless streak, going 3-1 with a 3.98 ERA in his past six outings -- though, granted, he still struggles to attack the strike zone consistently.
Zack Greinke, who didn't come over from the Brewers until late July, began August with a four-start stretch in which he gave up 20 runs in 25 innings. In seven starts since, his ERA is 1.62, and he's gone at least seven innings six times.
"I thought it was going to be like this the whole time," Greinke said. "Our pitching staff is so talented. I mean, it's pretty amazing. So I just expected it to be good right away."
But for a while, it just wasn't.
The question is, why?
"I hate to say this phrase because it always makes me laugh, but, 'That's the way baseball go,'" Wilson said, channeling his inner Ron Washington.
"It can be any number of things," said Haren, part of a rotation that currently ranks fifth in the AL with a 3.99 ERA. "It can be pressing, it can be bad luck, it can be not feeling great, or a combination of all those things.
"I think it was kind of inevitable, given the amount of talent that we have in the rotation, for us to turn it around. But just like hitting is contagious, pitching can also be that way. Being able to watch one starter after another go out there and do well, it makes it kind of like a habit."
Through it all, the one constant has been Weaver, who leads the AL in WHIP (1.00), is tied for first in wins (19), ranks third in ERA (2.74) and, naturally, is in line to pitch the regular-season finale if the Angels need to win it to make the playoffs.
"For a while," Scioscia said, "[Weaver] was a lone soldier out there, start after start, when the rest of our rotation was trying to find itself for what seemed like an eternity."
Yes, for practically any club, starting pitching rules the day -- even in a time so obsessed by pitch counts and innings limits. But for an Angels team that currently has five starters combining to make nearly $70 million this season, and a bullpen not necessarily built to absorb much of a workload, that's especially the case.
At last, that staff is pitching to its collective potential.
"I definitely knew these guys would bounce back," said pitching coach Mike Butcher, whose job status came into question as the starters struggled. "The biggest thing is the communication between starts, and just grinding through it and working through it. That's what they did."
But is it too late?
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.