8/21/2014 5:32 P.M. ET
Like '02 club, Angels can ride bats through October
Despite injury to top starter Richards, don't count out the slugging Halos
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
Predictably, the doomsayers are forecasting doom and the naysayers are saying nay. When Garrett Richards, in the midst of a brilliant season, went down in agonizing pain near first base at Fenway Park on Wednesday night, the first reaction was that the Angels' World Series championship visions collapsed with him.
On Thursday, an MRI confirmed that Richards will require surgery for a torn patella tendon in his left knee, and recovery time is six to nine months.
You don't win it all, conventional wisdom goes, without dominant starting pitching. That's why teams are willing to pay high prices to land the likes of Jon Lester, David Price and John Lackey in late July.
"The Angels aren't going to the World Series without this guy [Richards], I'll tell you that," Christopher Russo assured viewers on MLB Network on Thursday.
But here's the thing about perception and reality: they don't always intersect. You can win a title without rolling out a rotation full of aces. If the Halos and their fans need historical precedent to lift their spirits in the wake of Richards' fall, a DVD of the 2002 postseason will suffice.
It will show an Angels team rolling through the Yankees, Twins and Giants, winning 11 of 16 games on the way to the club's first World Series crown. Manager Mike Scioscia's club did it on the strength of a lethal offense, a sound defense and a deep, talented bullpen. The starting pitching was, to put it kindly, mediocre.
The Halos came into the playoffs with a rotation no more impressive than what they will have if they hold together and make it to October. Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz, Kevin Appier, Aaron Sele and Lackey, a rookie with 18 career starts, were Scioscia's options in 2002.
Washburn and Ortiz were the workhorses, and the wear and tear showed in the playoffs. Over the course of those 16 games, Angels starters averaged five innings per outing and were roughed up for a 5.38 collective ERA.
Washburn (9.31 ERA), Appier (11.37) and Ortiz (7.20) were pounded by the Giants in the World Series. Only the kid, Game 7 starter and winner Lackey (3.60), managed to keep Barry Bonds and Co. at bay.
"We didn't really have a No. 1-type guy in the playoffs," said second baseman Adam Kennedy, a .340 postseason hitter with a memorable three-homer eruption in decisive Game 5 of the 2002 American League Championship Series against the Twins. "But we had a great bullpen, and our offense was hitting on all cylinders. We were a confident bunch."
The Halos' offense had a .320/.367/.512 slash line in that postseason. Darin Erstad, Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon, Troy Glaus, David Eckstein, Scott Spiezio, Brad Fullmer and Bengie Molina joined Kennedy in the wrecking crew.
Francisco Rodriguez came out of nowhere to win five of the 11 games in overpowering relief, alongside feared closer Troy Percival. A collection of tough-minded middle relievers was superbly maneuvered by Scioscia and pitching coach Bud Black.
Twelve years later, the Angels have a rock-solid bullpen, proven big-game starters in Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, the latter the ace of the ill-fated 2011 Rangers team that fell one out shy of a World Series title against the Cardinals.
Like the 2002 Halos, the '11 World Series championship St. Louis team won with offense in manager Tony La Russa's swan song. La Russa had a deep, resourceful bullpen and spotty starting pitching. The starters were 5-5 with a 4.60 ERA in the postseason, averaging 5.1 innings per start, while the relievers were 6-2 with a 3.31 ERA.
As you watched the Angels respond Wednesday night to the stunning image of Richards writhing and screaming on the ground, you couldn't help thinking about the 2002 band of characters that simply refused to cave in.
Going back to work after Richard was carried off on a stretcher, the Halos beat the Red Sox to reach .600 (75-50), the best record in the Majors. A much-needed jolt came from slumbering Josh Hamilton, who looked like himself (single, double, three RBIs) with bullets to all fields after a pregame session with hitting coach Don Baylor, the sage.
If Hamilton has indeed regained his confidence and stroke in support of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Kole Calhoun and Co., these Angels have the offensive tools to drive their way deep in October. Hamilton's left-handed presence between Pujols and Howie Kendrick is essential.
While there is only one Trout, the game's best player, those 2002 Halos had a deep and formidable lineup featuring Anderson, Glaus and Salmon in the middle and Eckstein, Erstad and Kennedy setting the table.
Calhoun, one of the stories of this season, has the toughness and competitive spirit of those 2002 table-setters. Lineup chemistry starts at the top, and it doesn't get any better in the Majors right now than Calhoun and Trout.
Most managers and general managers are reluctant to embrace clubhouse chemistry as a significant factor, but players talk about it all the time. All season, Richards and his roommate, Trout, have been especially vocal about the exceptional chemistry on this team.
There's a fine blend here of veterans who have been through the fire -- Pujols, David Freese, Hamilton, Wilson, Weaver, Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Kevin Jepsen -- and young guys, led by Trout and Calhoun, burning to experience October.
Huston Street and Joe Smith would love to show they can replicate the magic of Percival and K-Rod at the back end of the bullpen 12 years later.
A big series with the Athletics in Oakland awaits the Angels this weekend. As this is written, the Halos are 25 games over .500. After 125 games in 2002, on Aug. 21, the Angels were 75-50 on their way to a Wild Card ride for the ages.
Déjà vu, anyone?
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.