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Are the Angels headed for fall?

They have put together a strong offensive run in the middle of the season, but their pitching doesn't look ready for the playoffs.

August 04, 2009|MIKE DiGIOVANNA

CHICAGO — This pattern the Angels have perfected -- fall behind after a shaky outing by their starter, roar back behind their offense, which usually strings together multiple hits in a big inning for a comeback win -- played well in July, but will it play in October?

And this reprisal of the Big Red Machine -- the Angels lead the major leagues in batting (.290), runs (590), hits (1,040) and average with runners in scoring position (.308) -- has been a summer hit, but will the turnstiles keep spinning when the temperatures cool and the leaves begin to turn in the Northeast and Midwest?

Pitchers are usually stingier and runs tougher to come by in the playoffs, when the likes of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson probably won't be as vulnerable as many of the pitchers the Angels have been pummeling this summer.

"You're not going to go against No. 4 and 5 starters, it's pretty much No. 1 and No. 2 guys," said ace John Lackey, who will start against the White Sox in Chicago tonight. "So, it's definitely going to be tougher to score runs, for sure.

"Good pitchers don't make as many mistakes. That's why I think power plays in the postseason. When a pitcher makes a mistake, you've got to make him pay for it. It's harder to get three hits in a row off a good pitcher. You need to capitalize on every mistake."

The Angels have more power throughout their lineup this season -- they rank third in the American League with a .451 slugging percentage and will welcome Vladimir Guerrero back to the lineup this week and Torii Hunter next week -- and that should help should they advance to the playoffs again.

But unless the Angels can get more effective and consistent performances from their starting pitchers not named Lackey, all the offense in the world may not help them come October.

There were some encouraging signs over the weekend. Joe Saunders pitched better Saturday, giving up four runs in six innings of an 11-6 win over the Twins, and Jered Weaver gave up four runs and four hits and had a career-high 11 strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings of Sunday's 13-4 win over Minnesota.

But Ervin Santana hasn't looked anything like his 2008 All-Star form, a pair of elbow injuries contributing to his 3-6 record and 7.31 earned-run average.

And Saunders, who was 3-5 with a 6.39 ERA in 14 starts before Friday, and Weaver, who had a 7.35 ERA in his previous eight starts before Sunday, will have to back up their weekend efforts with a few more strong outings before they are considered out of their slumps.

"The template is a little different from what we're used to here," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Our pitching saved us in years past, but our offense is fueling this level of play we've been able to bring this season.

"Hopefully, that's going to continue. Until things settle on the pitching side, the runs we've been scoring have been critical."

The emergence of so many offensive weapons certainly can't hurt. The Angels have shed their free-swinging ways for more patience -- they rank seventh in the league with 348 walks and second with a .353 on-base percentage.

They run the bases aggressively, leading the major leagues by going from first to third on singles 86 times and ranking second in the AL with 107 stolen bases, and there is a balance of power throughout the lineup, with four players with 16 homers or more.

Though the Angels rank 10th in the league with 114 home runs, they have clubbed 69 home runs in their last 44 games after hitting 45 in their first 58 games.

And their ability to erase deficits -- they lead the major leagues with 34 come-from-behind wins, including Friday night's rally from a 5-2 seventh-inning deficit for an 11-5, 11-inning win -- can only help their confidence down the stretch and during the playoffs.

"When you're down you have to keep battling; as long as you know you have outs left, you have a chance," Hunter said.

"I like those types of games, when you're down early. It keeps you focused. When you're ahead, sometimes you get complacent, you get relaxed, and the next thing you know, they're biting you. Friday showed what we're capable of doing."

Scioscia prefers games like Saturday and Sunday, when the Angels get good starting pitching, build an early lead, continue to pressure the opponent with the bats and get shut-down relief.

But until the pitching stabilizes, the Angels are going to have to rely on their offense to build those early leads and take some pressure off the starters, as they did for Weaver and Saunders in Minnesota over the weekend.

And if the starting pitchers continue to struggle? Well, there is always 2002, when the Angels had a less-than-imposing playoff rotation of Jarrod Washburn, Kevin Appier, Ramon Ortiz and Lackey, then a rookie, and won the World Series behind a relentless offense and dominant bullpen.

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