The Weekend Takeaway
Armed with the leagueâ€™s best player and a rotation replete with aces, the Angels should have quickly jelled into one of the best teams in the American League. But the same squad that went 30-13 from May 28 through the All-Star break sputtered to a 9-9 mark over the rest of July, and thenâ€”with Zack Greinke in towâ€”went 13-15 in August. The pieces were in place, but the results lagged behind.
Well, over the past 18 days, the long-awaited results have come, and the timing of the Halosâ€™ surge could not be better. Mike Sciosciaâ€™s team has won six in a row, 11 of its last 12, and 15 of its last 18. It is 7-1 in September, and the only loss was a one-run decision in Seattle eight days ago. In fact, the Angels have not been outscored by more than three runs since Aug. 19, the finale of what, at the time, seemed an ominous four-game sweep at the hands of the Rays.
Even as Anaheim was struggling, staring up at the increasingly distant American League wild-card picture, the 10-game stretch that began a week ago in Oakland must have been circled on all of the clubhouse calendars. The Angels could fall behind the Aâ€™s and Tigers in August, as long as they caught up with them by mid-September, and thereby put their destiny back in their own hands.Â They dug their own ditch, but so far, they have proven adept at climbing out of it.
The Angels allowed only five runs during their three-game series with the Mariners from Aug. 31-Sept. 2, but that only netted them two wins in three games, because they ran headlong into a red-hot Hisashi Iwakuma in the third. Undeterred, they coughed up only five runs in each of their next two seriesâ€”in Oakland, and at home against Detroitâ€”as well. And in those, they took full advantage.
After trailing the Aâ€™s by 5 Â½ games at the start of their three-game set at the Coliseum, the Angelsâ€™ brought the brooms and drew to within 2 Â½. After entering their three-game home battle with the Tigers tied in the loss column, they pushed comfortably ahead with another sweep, leaving Detroit in the dust, and keeping pace with Oakland, which swept Seattle. Now, the Angels are even with the Rays, at 77-63, a game behind second-place Baltimore for the last-ditch playoff berth, and still 2 Â½ shy of Oakland for the wild-card lead. With the Aâ€™s coming to town for four starting tonight, the Angels have an opportunity to finish the job and return to the top for the first time since Aug. 1.
But before we get to that, letâ€™s rewind to this past weekend, when Mike Trout reminded everyone why he is the leagueâ€™s most valuable player. The greatest threat to the Angelsâ€™ winning streak was their date with Justin Verlander in Saturdayâ€™s middle match, but three pitches into the bottom of the first, Trout put the Angels ahead with his 26th home run of the season, paving the way for his team to saddle Verlander with six runs. Then, less than three hours later, Trout secured the 6-1 victory by robbing Prince Fielder of what would have been the first-year Tigerâ€™s 26th big fly of 2012. As the MLB.com wrap declared: case closed.
Trout may get help in the upcoming series from designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who has done his best work against Oakland this season. Morales went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts on Sunday, but he is 13-for-35 (.371 average) with eight extra-base hits and six walks since Aug. 29 and has been one of the key factors behind the Angelsâ€™ 11-1 spurt. The 29-year-old Cuban has logged a .333/.404/.569 triple slash in 13 games versus the Aâ€™s, and heâ€™s 4-for-9 in his past meetings against Mondayâ€™s opponent, Jarrod Parker. Morales, Trout, and co. will try to back Dan Harenâ€”who tossed six innings of one-run ball in Oakland on Sept. 5â€”and extend the teamâ€™s winning streak to seven (10:05 p.m. ET).
What to Watch for on Monday
- Showdowns between contenders are the highlight of every September, but if you feel a hankering to watch a battle of bottom-feeders with sub-.400 winning percentages, donâ€™t miss game one between the Cubs and Astros. The probable pitchers, Chris Volstad (2-10) and Dallas Keuchel (1-7), respectively, have a combined record of 3-17, poor even by their teamsâ€™ lowly standards. Then again, the Cubs have won three in a row for the first time since July 28-30, and the Astros beat Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto on Sunday in the rubber match of their series in Cincinnati. Will they continue to impress, or play down to each otherâ€™s levels? Tune in to find out (8:05 p.m. ET).
- The Tigers showed few signs of life in the aforementioned weekend series in Anaheim, and the time of reckoning is now upon them. Sitting two games behind the first-place White Sox, Jim Leylandâ€™s team can atone for that dismal showing by waking up in Chicago, where tonightâ€™s series opener pits Rick Porcello against Jose Quintana. Though the 23-year-old Porcello has been knocked around to the tune of 202 hits in 157 1/3 innings this year, he has fared well versus the Pale Hose, winning all three of those assignments and allowing only three earned runs in 22 innings (1.23 ERA) of 14-hit work. To make it four straight over Chicago, Porcello may need a new recipe for retiring Paul Konerko, as the White Sox first baseman has gone 10-for-26 in their past encounters (8:10 p.m. ET).
- Mike Minor has barely been in the league for two years, and he already has a mortal enemy in Aramis Ramirez. The Brewers third baseman has tangled with Minor on three occasions, and heâ€™s gone a combined 6-for-12 with a double and a home run. Thatâ€™s the most hits Minor has allowed to a player outside of his division, and the second-highest OPS (1.333) by any player with at least 10 plate appearances versus the 24-year-old southpaw. Ramirez will try to maintain that ownage and support 23-year-old Wily Peralta, who will be making his second big-league start for Milwaukee in the series opener (8:10 p.m. ET).
- When Ryan Vogelsong hardly struck anyone out, he plodded along, piled up victories, and maintained a tidy, mid-2.00s ERA. Twenty-one starts into the season, Vogelsong had pitched at least six innings every time out, but only thrice recorded more strikeouts than innings pitched. Well, the 35-year-old has had more punchouts than frames in four of his last five outings, and his ERA has shot up from 2.27 to 3.29 during that stretch. In fact, as Bradley Ankrom pointed out last night, Vogelsong owns both the highest ERA (10.13) and the highest K/9 (13.08) in the majors since Aug. 13. Something is going to have to give soon, and the right-hander will try to sort things out in tonightâ€™s opener at Coors Field, where the Rockies will counter with Alex White (8:40 p.m. ET).
- Chase Headley wonâ€™t be on many Most Valuable Player ballots, but he has been the driving force behind San Diegoâ€™s outstanding second halfâ€”and heâ€™s showing no signs of slowing down. The third baseman has gone 14-for-36 (.389 average) with five home runs thus far in September, delivering five multi-hit efforts in the Padresâ€™ last eight games. As long as Headley â€œhas that feeling,â€ in the words of hitting coach Phil Plantier, who now shares the franchise second-half RBI record with his top student, the Padres will rank among the National Leagueâ€™s most fearsome spoilers. They can put a dent in the Cardinalsâ€™ chances during a three-game tilt that begins tonight at Petco Park (10:05 p.m. ET).