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Scratching Back

After 1999 Disaster, Angels Relish Joining Fight for Playoffs


If it seems improbable that the Angels will leap ever so daintily past several capable ballclubs and participate in a real playoff game for the first time since Chuck Finley wore his natural hair color, the Angels, being the Red Sox of the West, might not blame you.

Mo Vaughn, in particular, has to wonder how he keeps running headlong into these curses, of Bambinos and Cowboys, considering he's a pretty decent hitter and a better-than-that guy. He is spending his career with two organizations that, combined, haven't won a World Series in well over a century. And still, if it makes you feel any better, Vaughn stood less than a week from September and fairly gushed over the notion that this ballclub was about to have something to play for.

The Angels have done the implausible, rebuilding in a year; they are five games out of first place in the American League West and 3 1/2 games from the wild-card lead. A year ago they were behind by 25 games, casting blame and landing it squarely. Contention appeared several years away, somewhere beyond the drafts and trades and purges and ugliness.

"We're not supposed to be here," Vaughn said. "It's a different thing. We're not supposed to be here, though I think people know that we are here. People know we have young pitching, and they know we can score. They know we can swing with anybody in baseball."

Vaughn didn't come to Anaheim to be the underdog. If there was going to be a tall, dipstick-skinny pitcher leading the Angels into September it was going to be Randy Johnson, not Matt Wise. But, things change. The Angels know that. Mo knows that. As quickly as it all went rotten, it turned again, at least enough to include them in a September pennant race that might not be decided until the final week. The Angels conclude the season with four games at Oakland followed by three games against Seattle.

Honestly, Vaughn said, he'd rather be doing the chasing. The choice is not his. But, he looks ahead and considers the Mariners lost 11 of 12 games, despite all their well-regarded pitching. He sees the A's are young and mistake-prone and not without their own problems, particularly on defense. The imperfect Angels are the perfect fit, then, in a playoff drive that also includes the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays and maybe even the Detroit Tigers.

"It's a great time to play right now," Vaughn said. "It's make-or-break time. It's not about pressure. It's about going out and trying to achieve something. It's a great time of the year."

The Angels have 33 games remaining, only 13 of them at Edison Field. Their road record is 27-34, worst among playoff contenders. If the collapse comes, it will be in the middle of the month, when they play 13 consecutive road games--at Minnesota, Kansas City, Texas andOakland.

On the other hand, the Angels are 9-11 since Aug. 1 and have gained a game on the Mariners. If it is pitching the Angels require, then they should become stronger with closer Troy Percival, who came off the disabled list Saturday, and starter Jarrod Washburn, who is expected back soon.

"The schedule, that depends on how you look at it," said Ron Gant, who has been to the postseason five times, three times with Atlanta. "If everybody in here agrees we're playing for something, no matter where we go or who we play, and nothing's going to stand in the way of that goal, then it doesn't matter what the schedule is.

"From what I've seen since I've been here, we have the type of players that are going to go out there with the mind-set that nobody's going to beat us and we're going to get to that goal. If we keep that feeling, we'll do what we have to do."

In a clubhouse cleansed of last season's mud-slinging, there are no apparent doubters. Manager Mike Scioscia said this is a championship club, which is good enough for them.

"My thought is, it's a good chemistry team, a good makeup team," Tim Salmon said. "It's got all those good things going for it. If we can keep some of the pressure off the pitching and have them go out and do what they can, maybe catch a few breaks and play some good baseball, I think it's all very much within the realm of what we're trying to accomplish."

Among their active starters, only Wise has an ERA below five, and still the team ERA is 4.87, sixth in the American League. Other than Percival, the bullpen has been incredibly sturdy. In fact, the hitters don't carry this team anymore. The bullpen does. Despite being outhomered by only the Blue Jays, the Angels rank ninth in runs scored.

Vaughn laughed at the statistics as they rolled past his locker. There are five weeks left. Thirty-three games. September awaits, and the Angels are going.

"When you're in a position to win, you've gotta win," Vaughn said. "You can't give up on either side. You get up by three runs and have a chance to blow them out; you've got to put your foot down on people. You've got to close the door.

"You can't squander any opportunities. That's how ground is made up. You get into a rhythm, a flow of success. Half the battle is knowing you're going to do it. You know you're going to be there. You believe in what you're doing. You know you're going to make the big pitches. That's 50% of it."

He spread his large hands apart and raised his eyebrows.

"It can happen. There's too much time. Those teams, they've got to stay out in front. Look at the White Sox. Things start to get a little tight. Unless you're 15 games up, or 10 games up, to be two or three games back, you're pretty much in the driver's seat. The teams out in front, they're the ones playing pressure-packed baseball.

"I'm sure [the Mariners] are like, 'Oh, shoot, here we go.' They haven't [won] either. We're the ones sittin' back here, saying, 'Don't trip up. We're right there.' "

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