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09/15/09 11:39 AM ET

With Lackey, rotation best Scioscia has had

Right-hander has returned from injury to take place as ace

With Angels starters throwing quality outing after quality outing over the past few weeks, manager Mike Scioscia didn't hesitate to call his current rotation "the best we've had" since he took over the team in 2000.

At the top of that rotation is a familiar face, right-hander John Lackey, who has developed into a workhorse and the ace of the staff since winning Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie.

Angels at a glance
2009 record: 97-65
2008 record: 100-62
AL West champs

Figgins: Staying true
Angels: Road warriors
Figgins/Abreu: Spark plugs
Bullpen: Stepping up
Figgins: The ignitor
Scioscia: Fundamental key
Vlad: Focused on present
Hatcher: Enjoying success
Scioscia: Approach the key
Aybar: More than just glove
Morales: Putting it together
Abreu: Lauded by 'mates
Wilson: Not alone
Vlad: Resume builder
Weaver: Family matters
Abreu: Hall of Famer?
Saunders: Overcame injury
Lackey: Playoff veteran
Kazmir: Ties to Morales
Jepsen: Remembering Nick
Weaver: Path to pros
Hunter: Humbled by honor
Lackey: It all began in '02
Weaver: Growing as player
Reagins: Built from within
Morales: Back in the groove
Abreu: Influence extends
Scioscia: Catcher at heart
Lackey: Halos' leader
Morales: Gomez's legacy
Abreu: Embracing his role
Jepsen: Honoring Adenhart
Lackey: Takes place as ace
Weaver: Glue of staff
Scioscia: Postseason fixture
Morales: Perseverance

This season, however, hasn't been as easy for the big Texan, who began the year on the disabled list with inflammation in his right elbow and didn't make his first start until May 16.

Lackey struggled in his return, carrying an ERA above 5.00 in his first two months before settling in. He has a 2.73 ERA in his past 14 outings, dating back to July.

It's certainly been even more evident that he's back to his old self lately, as he's been in a groove in his past three starts, allowing just one run over 26 innings for a minuscule 0.35 ERA.

"I've been feeling good, seriously, probably a couple months now," Lackey said after shutting out the Mariners on Thursday night. "I want to keep things rolling. The best way to stay on a roll is not analyze it too much. You've got to look ahead."

Lackey's recent string of success has also coincided with an amazing run by the rest of the healthy rotation, which includes Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana and new addition Scott Kazmir.

Combined, the five starters have allowed two earned runs or fewer in 16 of their past 19 outings, turning it into a friendly competition among them.

"A little healthy competition in the clubhouse is fun, and it's good for the team, for sure," Lackey said. "I don't want one of those guys to one-up me. I want to do a little bit better than them. But when they're out there, I'm the biggest cheerleader they've got."

Lackey and the Angels are hoping that their recent streak will carry them to the American League West title for the fifth time in the past six seasons and the third year in a row.

Stingy starter
Right-hander John Lackey has gone 2-0 in his last three starts, with an ERA of 0.35.
Date OpponentIPHAER SO
Aug. 30OAK8506
Sept. 5KC9614
Sept. 10SEA9507

The other hope is that because Lackey missed the first month of the season, he'll be fresher heading into the postseason, just like last year, when he also missed the first month and shined in October with a 2.63 ERA in two starts.

But Scioscia is hesitant to call Lackey's early-season injury a blessing in disguise, especially because his team had to use 14 starters this season due to injuries to Santana and Saunders as well.

"No. I don't see any positives in John missing six weeks," Scioscia said. "Our challenge is ahead of us, to get into the playoffs. We're not looking ahead to say, 'This guy is going to be fresher going into the playoffs.' "

But one thing is certain, at least according to Lackey and Scioscia: This rotation, with Lackey at the top, is better than the one that led the club to its first and only World Series title, in 2002.

"We for sure have a better pitching staff, starting-wise," Lackey said. "Without a doubt."

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.