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KURT STREETER

Angels spring forward, but they've fallen back before

Angels are outstanding in the Cactus League, but what's the rest of the story?

March 29, 2009|KURT STREETER

FROM TEMPE, ARIZ. — The Angels are baseball's version of Barack Obama: sure of themselves, confident in their course, calm against criticism and the stormy tides of doubt.

The big difference? The president, judging by the monumental test he aced last November, knows how to seal the deal, which is something the current crop of Angels -- regular-season monsters, postseason patsies -- are still working on.

We won't know until October whether they've mastered winning when it really counts.

What we do know, right now, during a shimmering Arizona March, is that this team is back to its usual tricks. Five months beyond the jarring meltdown in Boston that stirred a storm of doubters, it's back to smooth sailing, back to steady as she goes, back to showing off the familiar combination of aggressiveness and determined effort that has long been the hallmark in Anaheim.

The Angels have sliced through this spring training with precision. They've got 22 wins against five losses after Saturday's 16-9 dismantling of the Mariners. That's the best exhibition-season record in the majors this year, the best in the team's 48-year history, one of the best the hardball-lifers in Tempe can ever remember.

"We're doing our thing, playing the way we play," said Torii Hunter. The rangy center-fielder echoed sentiments I heard repeatedly this week in the team's clubhouse, which has a spry, confident air and none in the way of splashy free agents signed in desperation. The Angels don't do desperation, do need splash.

"We're more patient as hitters, but we're also being really aggressive when it counts . . . going from first to third really well, maybe better than ever. . . . A lot of teams might not want to play the way we play during spring training because they don't want to get hurt. Not here. Here, you play hard from the first game on and that starts with [Mike] Scioscia and the top of the organization. They set it up, everyone follows."

Coming off a season of solid offense and spectacular defense, Hunter has a slimmer waist than last year. He said he knocked 10 pounds away this off-season, his workouts fueled in good part by a determination to help the Angels avoid more postseason horror. He's not alone. Several key Angels have come to camp with new vigor, headlined by Vladimir Guerrero, as light and fit as he has been in years. "There's just a look about him right now," observed Ron Roenicke, the Angels' bench coach. "It just pops out at you . . . something extra in Vlad's step."

Just as, all month, there has been something extra in the Tempe air. The Angels' hitters can do little wrong. They are hitting for power, average, and showing uncommon patience. The defense has been skin-tight. The pitching? Solid, despite a spate of injuries that has temporarily shelved starters John Lackey and Ervin Santana.

Even the injuries highlight a strength. One of the common themes heard from the Angels has to do with their vast bank of talent. "Everywhere you turn," said diminutive third baseman Chone Figgins, "seems like there's a good young player."

"They keep coming," said Bill Stoneman, the former general manager. "Guys who aren't even going to be on the team this year who've just been great this spring.

"Depth," noted Scioscia, when asked what has impressed him so far. The manager (who is trimmer than last season too) noted that being able to summon the likes of All-Star Joe Saunders to assume top-bill pitching duties should lessen the injury sting. "Especially that first week," he said, "we'll be ready."

There's much to like right now, but much to be wary of.

"Does anyone remember any of the last five Cactus League champions?" observed Stoneman, turning my query about the importance of spring training on its head. Point taken. Much too much can be presumed by focusing on record books and standings this time of year.

Consider 2002. The Angels went 17-15 in spring training. They limped to opening day waist-deep in question marks. They won the World Series.

There's no way of telling if another championship is in the cards. But this spring -- wins and losses aside, doubters aside -- the Angels are once again calm and comfortable, smart about learning from the past, keen on not reacting to the critics. Obama-like.

Now, can they learn the ultimate lesson from him?

Can they seal the deal?

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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