There’s hot, there’s Eliza Dushku…and then there’s the Anaheim Angels.

At exactly the point in the season when their rivals, the Oakland A’s, usually go into their own sprint, the Angels have ripped off a nine-game winning streak, part of a 27-14 run since the All-Star break that has them right in the middle of a four-team race for two playoff spots.

For the last week and a half (before running into the best pitcher in the AL Saturday afternoon) the Angels have been absolutely on fire. They’ve scored 77 runs in their streak, outscoring their opponents by 41 runs in that stretch. Were it not for a long rain delay in New York last Saturday, their starting pitcher would have been credited with the win in every one of those games, an indication of just how potent the offense had been.

The Halos are displaying the same characteristics that their championship team of 2002 did. This offense is, just as that one was, built on putting the ball in play and hitting for average. Thanks in part to the addition of Vladimir Guerrero, though–perhaps the best player in the game at implementing the Angels’ offensive approach–this is a slightly better lineup than the one that scored 851 runs two years ago.

          R/G    EQA    AVG   OBP   SLG
2002     5.25   .265   .282  .341  .433
2004     5.25   .269   .289  .345  .434

The Angels are once again executing an unreliable plan as well as it can be executed. If you live and die by batting average, you can win when you hit .280. Be a little bit worse–as they were in 2003, when they hit .268, or in 2001, when they hit .261–and you can’t score enough runs to win because you don’t have enough runners on base. They don’t walk; only the Royals have fewer than the Halos’ 344 bases on balls. Their isolated power of .145 is just 10th in the league, and by far the worst of any good AL team. They hit singles better than anyone else, though, and in ’04, they’re doing it well enough to have a winning lineup.

It hasn’t hurt that the Angels are executing the secondary parts of their offense very well. They lead in the AL in steals and stolen-base percentage. Only the Devil Rays have fewer strikeouts. Despite all the singles, all the balls in play, and an above-average groundball-to-flyball ratio, the Angels have grounded into just 98 double plays, fewer than all but four other teams. Aggressiveness on the bases and team speed can be overrated, but in the Angels’ case, the actual impact of those factors shows up in the extra at-bats they get by not hitting into double plays.

As important to the Angels’ success as their offense is their bullpen, which has been lights-out for the fourth year under Mike Scioscia. While no starting pitcher has an ERA under 4.11, every single reliever with at least 20 appearances is under that figure. (The comparison even extends to Ramon Ortiz, whose ERA is 5.47 in 14 starts, but a sparkling 1.89 coming out of the bullpen 15 times.)

It wouldn’t be a Scioscia bullpen without a random new name. This year’s is Kevin Gregg, a 15th-round draft pick with eight years of professional experience who made the team in part because Brendan Donnelly took a fly ball in the face in March. Gregg has struck out 72 men and walked just 22 in 70 2/3 innings, providing reliable bridge relief for a team that has seen its rotation average just under six innings a start.

Behind Gregg has been the same group that was so effective last season. Francisco Rodriguez has 100 strikeouts and just 42 hits allowed in his 66 innings. Scot Shields, who would have a much more important role on any other team, shook off a lousy first week and now has a 3.10 ERA and, like Rodriguez, Gregg and Donnelly, more strikeouts than innings pitched. Donnelly, who didn’t pitch until June after suffering a broken nose in spring training, hasn’t been the pitcher he was in ’02 and ’03, but still has 38 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings, along with a 3.25 ERA. Collectively, the pen has a 3.48 ERA, and has struck out a whopping 404 men in 388 1/3 innings. During the winning streak, the pen was at its most effective in the closest games, although it did allow some runs in blowouts over the Devil Rays and Royals.

For the second year in a row, the Angels’ least effective relief pitcher is their most-highly-paid one, Troy Percival. Percival, who has had an ERA below 3.00 just four times in his 10 major league seasons, continues to be the Angels’ closer despite having been outpitched since 2002 by at least three different teammates.

Watching Scioscia handle Percival has been interesting, because it’s the one decision in his tenure in which he’s allowed performance issues to take a back seat to other concerns. Whereas Scioscia has consistently allowed no-name pitchers to win important roles in his bullpen, and to show a similar lack of concern for reputation in doling out playing time to hitters, in Percival’s case, he’s shown a strange tendency to protect the player. Yes, Rodriguez has 10 saves this season, but almost all of them have come while Percival was unavailable. Percival has never been treated as anything but the closer, a fact evident in his usage pattern.

Now, as we’ve seen in many other similar situations, this causes the Angels to accidentally use their bullpen in a more optimal fashion. Better pitchers are pitching out of jams, coming in with runners on base in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, often specifically to face the opposition’s heart of the lineup, while Percival is allowed to face whoever happens to be batting in the ninth inning when the Angels have no more than a three-run lead.

This often means that the Angels have an edge in the seventh and eighth innings. However, it also means that Scioscia skips over, or even removes, a better pitcher in favor of Percival to protect one- and two-run leads in the ninth inning. There’s no way around it: If you’re the oppposition, you’re in much better shape facing Percival than facing Rodriguez, Shields or Donnelly if you need a run or two to tie or win the game.

Over the last five weeks of the season, the Angels will play the three teams they’re in direct competition with 16 times. Those games will have enormous importance; blowing any late lead because their manager can’t get past one reliever’s reputation could be catastrophic. Scioscia has to get past Percival’s label and start making sure he has his best pitchers throwing in the highest-leverage situations. The Red Sox, A’s and Rangers all have offenses that will punish bad decisions.

Will the Angels be one of the two survivors? Well, they’re a better version of the Rangers, another team that hits for average and needs to score a lot of runs, surviving by getting games to its bullpen with a lead. The Angels have a better pen and do a better job on defense, in addition to executing the high-average offense better than the Rangers do, not being as reliant on their home park.

We know that in five weeks, anything can happen–the Devil Rays’ June should have convinced even the most stubborn of that–so making a prediction is a bad idea. I can say, however, that the Angels are more likely to catch the A’s and Red Sox than the Rangers are. Moreover, I think the Angels have enough of an edge on offense and in the bullpen to make them a favorite, a small one, over the Sox. I don’t think they’re better than the A’s right now, although I could see the two teams finishing on the last weekend having both clinched playoff spots.

Something to keep in mind as we enter September: As their rivals comb through the detritus of the waiver wire to get help, the Angels may yet get back their team leader in on-base percentage and slugging. Troy Glaus, out since May after surgery on his right shoulder, started a rehab assignment last week with an eye towards rejoining the Angels for the stretch run. There is no player available in trade with the potential of even a part-time Troy Glaus; getting him back, even as a DH, would be a big boost for the Angels.

When the Red Sox traded Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs, I wrote, “The Red Sox essentially gave their playoff spot to the Cubs.”

I see no reason to change my mind about that. (The recent good stretch by the Sox is as much about weak opposition as any benefits from the trade.) This Angels team looks almost exactly like the 2002 version, and it’s entirely possible that, in an AL that lacks a great team, they’re on the same path they were on two years ago.

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