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Angels finally have solid hitting -- now pitching is the challenge

The biggest question is whether the Angels have enough pitching to fend off Texas and Seattle in the AL West and challenge the likes of Boston, New York and Tampa Bay for the pennant.

July 16, 2009|MIKE DiGIOVANNA

How strange this is for the Angels, who for years came out of the All-Star break one slugger shy of championship caliber but this July are basking in a bounty of bats.

The team that has relied so heavily on pitching since 2005 ranked first in the American League in batting average (.284), fourth in runs (461), fourth in on-base percentage (.348) and fifth in slugging (.439) in the first half.

In a rare reversal, the biggest question now facing the Angels, who resume play in Oakland tonight, is whether they have enough pitching to fend off Texas and Seattle in the AL West and challenge the likes of Boston, New York and Tampa Bay for the pennant.

"It's kind of a new thing, I guess," ace John Lackey said of a staff that ranks 12th in the league with a 4.79 earned-run average, nearly a run higher than the 3.99 ERA the Angels had in 2008.

"The pitching definitely has to get it together. It's been a roller coaster. [Jered Weaver] is the only guy who has kept it rolling steadily the whole year."

The rotation, expected to be among the best in baseball, weathered early injuries to Lackey and Ervin Santana and the death of Nick Adenhart, as their starters combined for a 3.78 ERA in the first 34 games.

Then Lackey and Santana returned in mid-May, and the starters' ERA ballooned to 5.20 in the next 52 games.

Santana (1-5, 7.81 ERA) struggled in his return from an elbow ligament sprain; Lackey, who had a forearm strain, hasn't been his usually dominant self; and now Joe Saunders is in a funk, going 3-4 with a 6.09 ERA in his last 11 starts.

The bullpen, also expected to be a strength, lost key setup man Scot Shields to a season-ending knee injury in May, and Jose Arredondo, whom the Angels saw as a potential closer, was demoted to triple A with a 5.55 ERA in early May.

Veteran left-hander Darren Oliver and right-handers Justin Speier and Jason Bulger did an outstanding job holding leads to set up closer Brian Fuentes in June and early July.

But the trio showed signs of cracking before the break, making late-inning relief help a priority approaching the July 31 trade deadline.

"The potential of our rotation is still there; it's not too far of a stretch to think that Santana, Saunders and Lackey have the ability to throw better, and that Sean O'Sullivan, Shane Loux and Matt Palmer can give us a chance to win," Manager Mike Scioscia said.

"Guys in the bullpen are starting to pitch better, but you can't use the same guys to hold leads every night. If you keep using your best relievers, they're going to wear down. It's still more important to add depth at the back of the bullpen."

If the pitching doesn't improve, "we're going to have to keep pounding the ball, which would put a lot of pressure on our offense," Scioscia said, especially since three-four hitters Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero may not return from injuries until August.

The Angels at a glance:

Biggest first-half surprise

That No. 5 starters Palmer and O'Sullivan have combined to go 9-1.

Palmer, a 30-year-old rookie, had an 11.74 ERA in two triple-A starts when he was called up to replace Adenhart. He is 7-1 with a 4.80 ERA in 17 games, including 11 starts. He beat CC Sabathia in Yankee Stadium and had a complete-game victory over Boston at home.

O'Sullivan, 21, was at Class A last season and started 2009 at double A, but injuries forced him into the rotation in June. He is 2-0 with a 3.80 ERA in four starts.

Biggest first-half

disappointment

A tossup between Howie Kendrick and Arredondo.

The Angels thought so much of Kendrick, a career .306 hitter for three years, they batted him second to open the season. Kendrick started chasing too many bad pitches, his confidence waned, and he was batting .231 when he was demoted to triple A on June 12.

Arredondo was dominant as a rookie in 2008, combining a 95-mph fastball with a nasty split-fingered pitch to go 10-2 with a 1.62 ERA. But the right-hander lost command of the strike zone and the Angels demoted him.

At this pace

Left fielder Juan Rivera would hit 30 homers and drive in 98 runs, and first baseman Kendry Morales would have 28 homers and 92 runs batted in. Letting Garret Anderson go was the right move, and Morales has eased the sting of Mark Teixeira's loss.

Outfielder Bobby Abreu would finish with 11 homers but would have 109 RBIs and 94 walks, a fair return on a $5-million investment. Closer Brian Fuentes would finish with 49 saves.

Reasons to be excited

No one has called for the firing of batting instructor Mickey Hatcher, a rite of summer for fans. A renewed emphasis on plate discipline and the natural maturity of some young hitters has transformed the Angels into a pesky and productive team.

The Angels are in first place, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Rangers, even though Lackey and Santana have not pitched to their capabilities.

Reasons to be concerned

The Angels must weather the loss of their best hitter, Hunter, and their cleanup batter, Guerrero, for at least two more weeks.

As good as the late-inning relief was in June, the Angels' bullpen still ranks 13th out of 14 AL teams with a 5.08 ERA. They need Kelvim Escobar to return from a shoulder injury or relief help from outside to win their fifth division title in six years.

Moves to ponder

General Manager Tony Reagins has inquired about elite starters Roy Halladay and Dan Haren, but he is focused more on late-inning relief. The question is: What will it cost to acquire a quality setup man?

Among possible targets are Toronto's Scott Downs and Brandon League, Arizona's Chad Qualls, Cleveland's Rafael Betancourt and Colorado's Huston Street if the Rockies drop out of the race. Another possibility is Matt Herges, who was recently designated for assignment by Cleveland.

See you in October

The Angels overcome the death of Adenhart and numerous injuries to fend off Texas in a grueling race that goes down to the final weekend of the season.

But will they have enough left for the playoffs?

--

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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