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Angels looking ahead

Matthews, Santana make strong cases for the postseason in a 7-1 victory over the Tigers.

September 05, 2008|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT -- You remember Gary Matthews Jr. Switch-hitter. Pretty good center fielder. Used to play for the Angels.

OK, that last part is an exaggeration, but not much of one. Matthews has virtually disappeared in the second half, his playing time drastically curtailed by a knee injury, a bruised batting average and the summer emergence of Juan Rivera.

But there was Matthews in Comerica Park on Thursday afternoon, doubling to left field to open the game and scoring the Angels' first run. Then he singled and scored in the third inning, doubled in the fourth and reached on an infield single in the seventh.

The Angels had 14 hits to back the splendid pitching of Ervin Santana in a 7-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers, reducing their magic number to clinch the American League West title to six, and four of them belonged to Matthews, who might not be done, after all.

"I've said it before, this is not the time to talk about my displeasure about playing time," said Matthews, who, in the second year of a five-year, $50-million contract, is hitting a disappointing .236 with seven home runs and 38 runs batted in.

"We have a really good thing going here. This is the best team I've played on, the best opportunity I've had to play in the postseason, and I don't want to do anything to take away from that."

A few weeks ago, there was speculation Matthews might be left off the playoff roster. Managers construct their October benches a little different, often choosing players who give them a better chance to win one game over those who would be more effective every-day players.

Reggie Willits is a better pinch-runner than Matthews, and Kendry Morales is probably a better pinch-hitter. Assuming Manager Mike Scioscia carries 10 pitchers and 15 position players, that final spot could come down to Matthews and Robb Quinlan.

A performance like Thursday's, an indication Matthews might be warming to his reserve role, will work in the outfielder's favor.

"I'll never be happy with this role, we know that," Matthews said. "Just because I'm not in the lineup doesn't mean I'm not going to prepare to play every day. It's not a role that will ever suit me, but I'll be OK with it."

The makeup of his bench is one of three tough decisions Scioscia will face entering the playoffs. The others: Who will be his four starting pitchers -- and which starter will go to the bullpen -- and in what order will those pitchers be aligned?

Santana is making a strong case to be the Angels' ace, or, at the very least, the team's No. 2 starter behind John Lackey.

The right-hander gave up one run and six hits in 7 1/3 innings Thursday, striking out eight and walking one, his only blemish Curtis Granderson's solo home run to right-center in the eighth.

Santana improved to 15-5 with a 3.23 earned-run average, with 191 strikeouts and 44 walks in 192 innings. He is 4-0 with a 2.31 ERA in his last seven starts, giving up 13 earned runs and 44 hits over the 50 2/3 innings.

"He's been as consistent as any pitcher I've seen," Scioscia said. "Going into his last handful of starts, he's still throwing the ball as well as he did in his first five or six. That's a tough lineup he went through, and he made pitches and put up zeros."

Early runs helped. The Angels took a 6-0 lead with a four-run, six-hit third, allowing Santana to be aggressive with his 96-mph fastball and put away hitters with his slider. Of his 112 pitches, 76 were strikes.

"His velocity is up, which helps, and his slider comes out of the exact same arm slot as his fastball," said first baseman Mark Teixeira, who faced Santana when he played for Texas. "You get ready for 96, the slider drops into the dirt, and you have no chance."

Scioscia refused to speculate about his playoff rotation and where Santana might fit in.

"Those decisions are made later," he said. "It's not an issue right now."

Santana wouldn't look ahead, either.

"When we get there, we'll see what they're going to do," he said. "When it's time for that, I'll be ready."


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