09/29/09 1:19 AM ET
Postseason becoming habit for Halos
Balanced Angels eye likely ALDS rematch vs. Red Sox
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
The Angels are returning to postseason play, having wrapped up their third consecutive American League West title by flattening their persistent pursuer, Texas, 11-0, on Monday night.
The first team to turn that AL West hat trick since the Oakland A's of 1988-90, the Angels now have time to rest some players, keep others sharp and fine-tune wherever necessary before Boston -- one win or one Texas loss away from claiming the AL Wild Card -- brings its myriad challenges to Angel Stadium for Game 1 of the AL Division Series next week.
This is the Angels' ninth trip to the postseason and sixth in 10 years under the direction of Mike Scioscia, one of the game's most respected managers.
A recent trend of quick October exits at the hands of the Red Sox has fans on edge, but the Angels plan to reverse that course and erase the Boston menace with the best balanced team of the Scioscia era.
"The first part of the season," Scioscia said, "we struggled to get our feet on the ground. The offense started to go crazy [in June] and we were able to absorb a lot of our difficulties by outscoring a lot of clubs. It saved us for a lion's share of the season.
"Since the end of August to now, our offense has struggled -- but our starting pitching has been exceptional."
The rotation is deeper and more efficient than any of the nine that preceded it in the Scioscia era, and the lineup, when it's humming on all cylinders, is a formidable blend of power and speed.
Scioscia navigated troubled waters early in the season, his team mourning the loss of promising young pitcher Nick Adenhart and companions Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson in a tragic wreck on April 9.
There were injuries aplenty to the pitching staff, but the offense erupted and took flight, driving this team until the arms mended and the acquisition of lefty Scott Kazmir from Tampa Bay made the rotation complete on Aug. 28.
Improved work by the starters, getting deeper in games, had the effect of easing the stress on the bullpen, which has settled into form with Darren Oliver, Jason Bulger and Kevin Jepsen -- one wily veteran and two young power arms -- serving as the setup bridge to closer Brian Fuentes.
Scioscia has made no revelations about rotation plans, leaving it to speculation. Longtime ace John Lackey appears likely to open the series, followed by Jered Weaver -- the rotation anchor all season.
Moving to Boston for Games 3 and 4, the probable starters would appear to be Kazmir and Joe Saunders. That would send Ervin Santana to the bullpen, where he has excelled in past postseasons.
Kazmir has pitched superbly in five outings (2.01 ERA) since coming aboard, but with little in the way of run support. Saunders has won six consecutive decisions and, like Kazmir, has a history of quality outings in Fenway Park.
It never has been known as a nice place to visit for southpaws, but Kazmir and Saunders have had no trouble getting comfortable on the mound in that cozy, loud ballpark.
The Angels are healthier than they have been all season. This was not the case the past two postseasons when several regulars were impaired by lingering injuries or trying to regain game conditioning. Last October, shortstop Erick Aybar and second baseman Howard Kendrick both were rebounding from injuries and struggled offensively against the Red Sox.
The timing with injuries was better this season. After spending the first six weeks on the disabled list with arm issues, Lackey and Santana returned, gradually gaining full command of their arsenals. Saunders spent 2 1/2 weeks on the DL with shoulder inflammation but has been on top of his game in since his return.
Even Kazmir, in Tampa Bay, struggled with a quadriceps injury but has been healthy and productive since arriving on the West Coast.
"This rotation is definitely better than the one we had in '02," Lackey said, referring to when the Angels won the World Series. "We have five guys who can get it done now."
Lackey and Torii Hunter, the team's highly respected veteran leaders, both were critical of the club's execution during their three-game series in Boston Sept. 15-17 and vented verbally.
The offensive tailspin that had coincided with the arrival of September continued except for one eruption behind Lackey in Texas.
A four-game losing streak, two apiece against the Yankees and A's, was the team's longest of the season, but the offense busted out in the final two games against Oakland over the weekend, producing 17 runs.
The noise in the final two games against the A's, along with a soothing address by Scioscia after a 15-10 loss on Saturday night, appeared to ease concerns and lift spirits as well as burdens all around.
It might have been inevitable, in reflection, that the offense would sag. It had carried the club for three months as the pitching staff, in constant disorder from the season's opening week, struggled to find healthy, productive arms.
The defense has been a plus all season, with Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli sharing catching duties and the trio of Aybar, Kendrick and Maicer Izturis excelling in the middle of the infield. Chone Figgins has played Gold Glove-caliber third base, and Kendry Morales has emerged as a solid defender at first in his first full season.
The outfield has the peerless Hunter in command, flanked by Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu, both equipped with powerful and accurate arms.
The bench, featuring Napoli or Mathis, Kendrick or Izturis, Gary Matthews Jr. and Robb Quinlan, could include all-purpose, late-innings specialist Reggie Willits and Bobby Wilson, a solid third catcher, if the Angels elect to go with only 10 pitchers. Slugging infielder Brandon Wood is another possibility, but he has not played down the stretch.
Going with 10 pitchers would seem to make sense in a short series with only four starters needed and Santana, if he's the odd man out, bringing another live arm to the bullpen.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.