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Diane Pucin

Freeway Win Puts Them in Fast Lane

July 01, 2002|Diane Pucin

This series was about the Angels. It had to be.

It had to be about the Angels staying close to the Seattle Mariners and ahead of the Oakland A's. It had to be about the Angels digging in and winning a crucial series, about the Angels making sure they are part of the buzz as the All-Star game approaches.

It had to be about the Angels gathering themselves after a disappointing opening loss Friday. It had to be about the Angels getting superb pitching two nights in a row against the Dodgers, who had the best record in the National League until this loss.

This had to be about the Angels convincing themselves that they can win against good teams. Most of their fabulous recovery from a 6-14 start has come against the lesser teams of baseball. Much of July and August will be spent playing the best American League teams--Seattle, Oakland, Minnesota, the Yankees, the Red Sox.

The Dodgers had won their last nine series. They took sets from Boston and Anaheim. They are in first place. Not by so much that losing doesn't matter, but by enough so that it's not season-threatening to have another team win two of three.

Once only a game behind the Mariners, the Angels had come home after a .500 trip trailing Seattle by 4 1/2 games. When you start the season 6-14, you can't afford many .500 stretches.

"Coming off that tough road trip," Tim Salmon said, "it is a big deal to us to play really well, really solid and to win a series against a team hitting the ball well, to beat a very tough pitcher. When it gets down to it, we're in a very tough division and we're going to have to beat a lot of very tough teams."

This game, this 5-1 victory in front of a sellout crowd on a day when the Dodgers sent out newly minted All-Star pitcher Odalis Perez, came thanks to the unknowns.

Rookie pitcher John Lackey, making his second major league start and his first at home, was a nerveless competitor who fought his wildness in the sixth inning. Lackey had allowed consecutive walks after giving up a double. Bases were loaded, there was only one out. The 23-year-old kicked at the dirt, stepped back, took his time, made himself calm down. He got two groundouts, only one run scored, and among his teammates Lackey earned respect.

"That showed a lot of maturity," Benji Gil said.

Gil had homered in the second inning, a three-run shot that gave the Angels the 5-0 lead and the last runs they came close to scoring off Perez. It was Gil's first homer of the season. It is the kind of contribution good teams need from the non-stars.

And Ben Weber was kind enough to give Lackey the ball at the end of the game. Weber got his first career save. It might have made a nice memento for Weber too, but it was given to the new kid.

"It's a shot in the arm," Salmon said after watching Lackey act as if he belonged in the big leagues. "We're in a fortunate position of having a lot of pitchers. When you've got a righty who can come out and throw three hard pitches, it's great. With this kid, the game goes fast. All of a sudden four, five innings have gone by, you look up and think, 'Wow, not much has happened.' "

The Angels need Lackey because the Mariners and the A's have pitching. Great pitching. The A's have an All-Star pitcher, Barry Zito. The Mariners have two, Freddy Garcia and Kazuhiro Sasaki.

The Angels needed this series because they see in front of them a newly healthy Seattle. Edgar Martinez is back and feisty and swinging a very smart bat.

They feel behind them Oakland surging. After sending the other Giambi (Jeremy) to Philadelphia, it is as if the A's shed their winter skin. They can't seem to lose. They were supposed to have given up when Jeremy was sent off. Now they are only a game and a half behind the Angels, who are 3 1/2 behind Seattle.

The Angels needed this victory because Seattle lost Sunday and Oakland won.

"On the one hand," Salmon said, "it's too big a picture to make one loss important. On the other hand, on a day when you can pick up ground on the Mariners, it's a good win. On the one hand, we have plenty of time and lots of games against the Mariners and A's. On the other hand, we want to be close enough that those games count."

The Dodgers head off to play at Arizona and St. Louis, and that's a tough trip.

It is this week, against the Diamondbacks and Cardinals, that the Dodgers need to win, more than they did against the Angels this weekend

. "It's a challenging week," Dodger Manager Jim Tracy said. "We have a great opportunity to make a loud statement [before the All-Star break] and then to continue to make it after the break."

Beginning July 15, the Angels play 20 consecutive games against either Seattle or the A's; against first-place Minnesota; against the first-place Yankees; against the struggling Red Sox, who seem aimed for wild-card contention with either the Angels or A's. It will be the start of a brutal finish. In September the Angels will have 14 games against Oakland and Seattle; at the end of August they have a seven-game trip to New York and Boston.

That's the big picture Salmon talked about. That's why this series had to be about the Angels. They need to know they can win big series. This was a big series. They won.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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