04/19/11 2:48 PM ET
Pitching everywhere you look in AL West
Top-shelf talent on mound separates division from others
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
Yes, the sample size is small -- one-tenth of a season. But it is never too early to notice the degree of difficulty. The AL West could have not only one of baseball's best divisional races, but it could also produce two postseason teams in 2011.
That accomplishment is supposed to be the province of the AL East, which has supplied two postseason teams in seven of the past eight seasons. But this year, the balance of pitching strength may be shifting, as far west as possible on the baseball landscape.
The three leading team ERAs belong to, in order, the Oakland Athletics, the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This division race holds the promise of competition at the highest level. The one thing that could not be projected is one team cruising away with the division.
"No, it will not get easier, but that's a good thing, because it keeps the competitive juices flowing," Rangers manager Ron Washington said on Monday night. "You have to play at a Major League level. If you plan on winning, you have to play at a high level, and we're certainly learning how to do that."
The Angels and the Rangers entered Monday night tied atop the AL West at 10-5 and looking forward to a three-game series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The Rangers got much the better of the initial showdown with a 7-1 victory. Starter C.J. Wilson was in charge for the Rangers, but for the Angels, Ervin Santana was touched for two runs in the fourth and four more in the fifth, with Adrian Beltre's three-run homer being the crucial blow.
The Angels arrived riding a five-game winning streak, and enjoyed a recent streak in which their bullpen pitched 27 1/3 scoreless innings.
"They've been on this winning streak where they haven't given up any runs at all," Wilson said. "That being said, I know there are some guys on that team that don't have good career ERAs here at the Ballpark. They're coming from Chicago, where it was cold and blustery, like we were coming from New York, where it was cold and dreary. When it's hot and humid like this, I feel like I have a little bit of a home-field advantage. I always feel like I have a home-field advantage any time it's above 85 degrees, because I'm so used to it."
The game-time temperature was 91 degrees. And game time was 7:05 p.m. CT. This was not weather that said "mid-April" to most of America. Wilson was in good shape, maybe even great shape, with the climate and having given up one earned run over seven innings.
The Rangers believe they have an advantage over the competition in the offensive portion of the game because of a highly versatile lineup that had both speed and power.
"I believe that if I can just hang in the game, I'm going to win," Wilson said, "because these guys are always going to score."
What the Rangers are achieving now is doubly impressive, with Josh Hamilton, the 2010 American League MVP, on the disabled list. Hamilton is a truly elite talent, capable of having an impact on a game in more ways than almost any other player in the game today. The Rangers have other, viable options in the outfield, but Hamilton cannot be replaced.
But again, that is where the pitching comes in. Both of these clubs have pitching depth, but there is also stunning quality at work. The Angels have a starting pair that has been unbeatable to date. Dan Haren and Jered Weaver are a combined 8-0 with a 1.23 ERA. And though the Rangers were not able to retain Cliff Lee, left-hander Matt Harrison has been a revelation, going 3-0 with his own 1.23 ERA.
What separates these clubs from much of baseball is the availability of top-shelf young pitching. Look at the closers: The Angels have turned that role over to Jordan Walden, 23, and he has not been scored upon in nine appearances. The Rangers spent much of Spring Training pondering the possibility of moving closer Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation, and his future may yet be as a starter. But for this season's purposes, the Rangers wisely stuck with Feliz as their man in the ninth inning. Feliz, who will be 23 in May, has five saves in five save opportunities this season and has converted 16 straight saves, dating back to August.
This is a natural matchup for divisional supremacy. The Angels had won five of six division titles before the Rangers took over last season with a division championship, and subsequently, their first AL pennant. The argument continues this week and probably all season in a division that has three teams with top-flight pitching.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.