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Angels get a win, but there's a catch to it

August 30, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

The Angels are going to the playoffs.

Sure, it's only August. But when you have the second-best record in the league, the largest division lead in baseball and none of the three teams chasing you is above .500, it doesn't take a clairvoyant to figure out you're still going to be playing come October.

The question now is, will the Angels sail into the postseason or stumble in?

Judging by recent results, you'd have to give the edge to stumble. Because even though the Angels and Ervin Santana beat the suddenly punchless Texas Rangers, 3-1, on Friday night, they hardly looked like world beaters -- or even World Series contenders -- doing it.

And that continues a trend for the Angels, who won for just the seventh time in 16 games, narrowly avoiding the possibility of their first losing month in more than two years.

"I couldn't tell you if we're under .500 since the middle of the month, over .500. If we've won 35 games in the month of July," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "I just know that we need to keep playing good baseball. And I know we haven't played as well this month.

"But we have to keep things going in the right direction and that's what we're searching to do."

Offensively it was a mostly fruitless search Friday. Take away a three-batter sequence in the fifth inning, and the Angels get shut out by a pitcher taking a 7.83 ERA into his second start of the season and two relievers who've combined to give up more hits than innings pitched. And take away a sensational seventh-inning catch by Torii Hunter, who robbed Marlon Byrd of a two-run homer, and Santana is looking at his fourth straight no-decision rather than his third win in August.

"I ate the Green Monster," Hunter said of the padded center-field wall, which he greeted with a face-plant at the end of what he's already calling one of his favorite catches. "It tasted pretty nasty. It was pretty painful."

For the Rangers and starter Dustin Nippert as well. Nippert was brilliant through 5 1/3 innings, allowing just a pair of singles while striking out seven. But things unraveled quickly in the sixth, with Chone Figgins blooping a one-out hit into left field and Garret Anderson, batting second in the lineup for the first time in 10 seasons, following three pitches later by hitting a changeup for a two-run homer.

After a Mark Teixeira single and back-to-back walks to Vladimir Guerrero and Hunter, Nippert was gone -- but the Angels weren't done, adding one more run when Juan Rivera greeted reliever Warner Madrigal with a sacrifice fly.

That proved to be enough for Santana -- thanks to some timely help from Hunter, who, after a long run, reached above the wall in center field to take a potential tying home run away from Byrd.

"I thought it was gone," admitted Santana (14-5), who scattered five hits over eight innings, striking out seven and giving up one run on a broken-bat single by Milton Bradley in the fourth. Francisco Rodriguez pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his 52nd save, five short of the major league record.

"It was a momentum-changer," Scioscia said of Hunter's catch.

And speaking of momentum, that's exactly what the Angels are looking for. Because while, at times, they may appear disinterested with a huge division lead and a month of semi-meaningless games to go, momentum is a terrible thing to waste.

"You always search for that during a long season," Anderson said. "Mike's always been the type of manager that, he's not going to let it spin the wheels too long. He's not afraid to change anything. He's always trying to search for something. Late August, early September you drag a little bit. But you have to be mentally strong."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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