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July 14, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

The High-Flying Halos

by Joey Matschulat

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The date was May 30, an unseasonably cool Saturday evening in Orange County, and its resident Angels were beginning to run out of answers. They had tripped coming off the starting block and fallen behind in the division race almost immediately, dropping eight of their first 12 games of the season (including three straight at Minnesota). Though their record had stabilized to an unremarkable 24-23 entering the night, the first-place Rangers were then threatening to pull away from the mad scramble, having amassed the second-largest division lead (4.5 games) in baseball in less than two months' time, and having just reeled off an impressive six wins in eight games.

That night, however, hinted at the possibility of being everyone's favorite nebulous, media-invented stimulant to the Angels' weakening heart known as the "turning point." Despite appearing to be something of a huge pitching mismatch on paper, Los Angeles' Matt Palmer remained in lockstep with Seattle's Felix Hernandez for seven innings, with neither team pushing a run across until a one-out Erick Aybar double in the bottom of the seventh plated an unearned run against the King. Two more runs in the eighth, and the Angels' closer was on to lock down a stunning shutout win against one of the great starting pitchers of our generation. Men cheered. Women swooned. Children cried. The earth shook. The Rally Monkey spazzed out and had to be heavily sedated.

But inside of 10 minutes, Seattle had knotted it in the most dramatic of ways imaginable—courtesy of a three-run, two-out blast to left field—and went on to steal a 4-3 win in 10 innings. The ensuing ripple effect was far-reaching: The loss sent nearly 40,000 home in disbelief, dropped the Angels into an increasingly distressing 5.5-game hole, and left Palmer to opine on what lengths he was willing to goto help his team after his shell-shocked closer ducked out of the clubhouse without speaking to reporters: "If they want me to sit on the bench and pick pine out of my butt, I will do it."

The Angels then proceeded to win four of their next five, 12 of their next 17, 34 of their next 48, and 73 of their next 114 games en route to a final division lead of 10 games over second-place Texas, swept the Red Sox out of the divisional playoff round in three games, and came up two wins shy of a trip to the World Series after the eventual world champion Yankees downed them in six games.

By now, you've recognized my use of everyone's (least) favorite literary bait-and-switch tactic, and know that I speak not of the 50-42 Angels of the present, but rather the 97-65 Angels of two years ago. The closer then was Brian Fuentes, who posted 19 consecutive scoreless outings after the disaster of May 30. The author of the game-tying bomb was then-Mariners second baseman Jose Lopez, who went on to author a 25-homer, .272/.303/.463 full-season campaign before deteriorating into one of the worst everyday players in baseball just a year later. Truth be told, there aren't that many similarities between the Angels of then and now (more than half of their active roster has turned over, for example), but the common thread between the two is that the 2011 Angels are doing everything within their power to follow in the path of the Halos team that preceded them two years earlier… right down to the marvelous comeback in the standings.

There was a fleeting window about five weeks ago where it appeared that time had just about run out on the Angels as far as this season was concerned. They had dropped eight out of nine games and plunged to a season-worst 30-35, which even in the mediocrity-plagued AL West was good for no better than third place and a six-game deficit.* Just as frustrating, though, was the fact that the run prevention had remained sparkling up to that point (3.85 runs per game), but LA's injury-handicapped offense had mustered 3.71 runs per game and a composite batting line of.254/.318/.382. Since that June 10 "turning point" (a 4-2 loss to Kansas City with no unusual characteristics whatsoever), the Angels have plated 4.22 runs and yielded just 2.96 runs per game, emerged victorious in 20 out of 27 games, slashed their deficit to just one game, and effectively turned the AL West into a two-team dance between themselves and the Rangers. And so it goes.

[* I still have it in my mind after all these years that a given team is treading on particularly dangerous ground if it's ever trailing in any playoff race by a good 5-6 games, and is effectively finished if it falls any further. Yet, every year a team surges back from an equal or greater deficit to claim an ample share of the post-season limelight. Maybe it's because I spent my formative baseball-watching years following a team that really wasn't (and still isn’t) very well acquainted with the concept of "surging back."]

So, to whom do the Angels owe the most gratitude for their brilliant comeback? I'd say the schedule-makers, but that would be an egregiously lazy copout. Six wins in seven games against the Mariners during that stretch certainly facilitated their push, but both clubs still hovered relatively close to the .500 mark at the outset of each respective series, and their easier opponents (e.g. the Dodgers, against whom they went 4-2) were mostly offset by their more challenging opponents (e.g. the Tigers, against whom they won two out of three). 

The offense? Ah, now we're getting closer to the heart of the matter. The Angels' cast of hitters has managed to hit only slightly above the league average (.264/.324/.411) over this 27-game stretch of prosperity, but that's still miles ahead of where they were before the team collectively caught fire, and there are a few key figures that merit particular attention. Before succumbing to a hamstring strain (and clearing a path to the majors for prospect demigod Mike Trout, who could end up being a part of putting the Angels over the top this year), Peter Bourjos hit an absurd .353/.389/.441 in 72 plate appearances, while first baseman Mark Trumbo clubbed his way to a very slugging-friendly .279/.319/.523 in 91 PA. Vernon Wells, one of the biggest and most overpaid disappointments in baseball, hit a very Victor Diaz in '07-esque.283/.280/.575 with nine homers in 107 PA. It's not very often that you'll see a player provide legitimate offensive utility over a specified period of time with an OBP south of .300, but, hey, there you are.

But the pitching has been on an entirely different plane. Neither the Angels' team strikeout rate (7.04 K/9) nor walk rate (2.76 BB/9) ranked among the top 10 teams in baseball over that aforementioned 27-game stretch, but the homer suppression was at the double take-worthy level of 0.37 HR/9, which, despite obviously being unsustainable, was good enough to yield the best FIP (2.92) and third-best ERA (2.79) in all of baseball. That brilliance pervaded both the rotation (180 2/3 IP, 2.74 ERA, 2.84 FIP) and the bullpen (61 IP, 2.95 ERA, 3.19 FIP), with the former being punctuated by this utterly absurd pitching line from Jered Weaver: 5 GS, 40 IP, 27 H, 6 BB, 30 K, 0 HR... and four earned runs. Only Joel Pineiro vaguely resembled a weak rotation link during this period, and even his 4.00-plus ERA was still undergirded by a decent 4.34 K/9, 2.89 BB/9, and 0.48 HR/9 over 37 1/3 frames.

There is more to be said about this oddly-compelling Angels squad at another time, in particular, about what specifically is going to have to remain as good as it is right now, and what will have to get better, for Los Angeles (can I call them Anaheim yet?) to topple the Rangers. Both teams are hungry to improve further, although the Angels' situation is complicated by their reported inability to take on much in the way of payroll, and the Rangers' biggest deficiency—another sturdy upper-tier starter, in my opinion—may not be available for anything less than an exorbitant price. This does still feel as though it's the Rangers' division to lose, and there does seems to be only one team left standing in their way ... but that one team also represents a clear and present danger to Texas, and has some very powerful post-season hopes and dreams of its own.

 The race for the AL West already was on, but now it’s really on. 

Related Content:  Angels,  The Who,  Stretch Run

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