07/15/09 5:00 PM ET
Despite many lows, Angels on top
Team endures injury -- and tragedy -- but shows its resolve
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
Obviously, as replacement ace Jered Weaver might say, it's been a very weird first half for the Angels.
Few teams in the history of Major League Baseball have experienced a first half to compare with what the Angels have gone through -- because few have lost one of their own, as the Angels did when Nick Adenhart was killed in the season's opening week.
Adenhart, who was 22 when he died on April 9 in an auto accident, had just pitched brilliantly in his season debut against the A's -- six shutout innings -- and figured prominently in the club's plans for years ahead. On top of that, he was hugely popular with teammates for his unassuming manner and quirky sense of humor.
Much of the first half was an emotional maze for the two-time reigning American League West champions, trying to deal with the tragedy along with a succession of injuries -- notably to Vladimir Guerrero and a pitching staff constantly patched together by manager Mike Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher.
The Angels began to catch their stride in mid-May and by July were beginning to resemble a legitimate contender again, offensively, defensively and on the mound. But they'll open the second half with their MVP, Torii Hunter, on the disabled list with Guerrero. Hunter has a strain in his right side, while Guerrero has a muscle strain behind his left knee.
Club MVP: No player in the Majors has been more consistently valuable to his team than Hunter. The All-Star center fielder has been playing at the highest level of his career, more productive with the bat than he's ever been while scaling walls and making the sensational play in center field almost routine. On the disabled list for the first time since 2006, Hunter is paying a price for banging into those walls. No matter how he's playing, he's the emotional center of the team, helping lift teammates out of doldrums on a daily basis with his humor and compassion.
Call him "Ace": Injuries severely depleted the starting rotation as the season opened, and by the time Santana and Lackey were back, Weaver had established himself as the front man with a half worthy of the All-Star team, even though the distinction escaped him. Weaver was near the league lead in ERA throughout the half, emerging as the club's most reliable starter.
Greatest strength: Depth, in abundance, everywhere. Few clubs could absorb so many losses to so many valuable performers, with setup artist Scot Shields lost for the season with knee surgery, Escobar's comeback bid from shoulder surgery fizzling as pain resurfaced, and Guerrero missing more than a month with a pectoral tear. To say nothing of Santana and Lackey each missing six weeks, and Dustin Moseley, Kevin Jepsen and Loux all spending extended time on the disabled list, testing the organization's pitching depth.
Biggest problem: When three pitchers who weren't even in the Angels' plans coming into the season -- Palmer (7-1), O'Sullivan (2-0) and Loux (2-3) -- have as many starts and more wins than your three dominant right-handers -- Lackey, Santana and Escobar -- obviously the rotation is an issue. The Angels have managed remarkably well under the circumstances, but they need Lackey and Santana to recapture All-Star form or something close to it in order to be a championship-level club.
Biggest surprise: Palmer was signed to a Minor League deal that caused scarcely a ripple in the offseason, and here he is, with 11 starts. His teammates have supported him with loads of runs and many great defensive plays -- something Palmer underscores at every opportunity. He was 0-2 in three big league starts with the Giants (all last season) before joining the rotation and winning his first six decisions, a record for a 30-year-old rookie.
Team needs: The pitching staff, top to bottom, has to find continuity and consistency. All-Star closer Brian Fuentes has been as good as advertised in Francisco Rodriguez's old role, but the rest of the bullpen has been a revolving door, Scioscia and Butcher looking for reliable performances from a variety of sources. Justin Speier, Jason Bulger and Darren Oliver have been especially effective of late. Even more important, the rotation needs to deliver on a consistent level, getting deeper into games to spare wear on the relievers.
He said it: "We have a lot of heart on this team. You can never count us out of a game. We battle, and most of the time we've come back. Late-inning rallies and comebacks, that's one thing about this club -- we're going to keep battling and keep banging away." Hunter
Mark your calendar: The Angels, with their first seven second-half games on the road at Oakland and Kansas City without Hunter and Guerrero, will return home for seven games against the Twins and Indians. The Angels have two more home series left with Texas (Aug. 7-9, Sept. 28-Oct. 1) and one more three-game home series against Seattle (Sept. 8-10). An extremely competitive AL West makes each of these dates important.
Fearless second-half prediction: The Angels will put together a late run, with Lackey and Santana finding their groove and Hunter and Guerrero leading the offensive charge with Chone Figgins, Bobby Abreu and Kendry Morales, and win the division by three games.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.