Thursday, June 21, 2007

AL West Leaders Continue to Roll
By Adam Dodge - Angelswin Senior Writer

No one is crowned “Champion” in June, but one of the great things about baseball is the ongoing speculation as to which team is best at any point of the season. And on seemingly any given day an argument can be made for one of a half-dozen teams. Today, to say that any team is better than the Los Angeles Angels would result in a difficult to win argument to be sure.

And truly there is only one team in baseball that one could argue is in the Angels’ class. The Boston Red Sox, who have cooled of late, are still percentage points ahead of the Halos in the standings. The New York Mets are often called a “great” team. Well, if a great team is good hitting team with a weak pitching staff that plays in a bad league, then yes, the Mets are great. With arguably the top five or six teams all playing in the American League, the Angels’ franchise best 46-27 start is even more impressive when you consider they match up with the likes of Cleveland, Detroit, Oakland, Boston and the New York Yankees, who are on a torrid streak of winning games at the moment.

Most baseball related arguments are based on statistical data and a comparison between teams. That is an efficient, if not effective way of settling such debates. However, to fully appreciate what the Angels are doing, we must look beyond statistics. The brilliance of Scioscia’s bunch must be witnessed first hand. The Angels are winning games in every way possible. They will shut you out, blow you out and come from behind. We all knew the Angels would out pitch their share of opponents, but it’s been the hitting that has led the Angels to the top of a lot of power rankings. They lack power and rank near the bottom of the American League in homeruns, but they can score with anyone right now. The Angels are second in MLB in hitting, fourth in runs scored, fifth in on base percentage and sixth in team ERA. Define “balance.”

And unlike last season, which saw the Angels win 89 games, the difference this year is that the team is winning games it has no business winning largely due to the frenzy hitting offense. Take Tuesday night’s game for example. John Lackey was uncharacteristically awful. The defense was bad. The Angels found themselves down 9-4 entering the bottom of the 7th inning. Some 20 minutes and 3 outs later the game was tied. This team resembles the 2002 group. They’re never out of a game, and they know how to ride and maintain momentum. Last night the Angels found themselves in a 4-2 hole entering the bottom of the 7th inning and scored 6 runs to put the game away. The amazing thing…they scored all 6 runs while getting just 1 hit. Unlike Angel teams past, this group has shown an ability to work counts and take walks thanks in large part due to Reggie Willits and Gary Matthews Jr.

The Angels have been lucky. For example, the injury to Garret Anderson allowed Willits to enter the line up. Willits has responded by posting a .400+ OBP, and is hitting around .330, while fitting in nicely to the Angels running game.

This team is not Vladimir Guerrero and a bunch of throw ins. Still in the midst of their hottest streak of the season, which has seen the Angels win 8 consecutive series and 12 of 13, they’ve done in large part without a hot Guerrero or Matthews. The two have been okay over the past month, but not what they were in April. Chone Figgins, Casey Kotchman, Mike Napoli and Howie Kendrick have been blazing hot recently. And this is noteworthy because many fans and media members were of the opinion that Scioscia and the Angels should bench both Figgins and Kotchman in favor of Maicer Izturis and Kendry Morales. This is a case of Scioscia’s loyalty and patience paying off. Ironic because it’s his patience and loyalty, which often earns Scioscia the majority of his criticism. In 2007 it might be responsible for the team’s best start in franchise history.

At 46-27 the Angels look to be cruising towards the playoffs. They’ve done it by displaying better balance than any team in the bigs. Their starting pitching, back end of the bullpen and surprisingly good offense makes the Angels good. That they’re beating good teams when they themselves play poorly, that makes them great. And right now, there is no one greater.
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