Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Angels’ Hopes Rest With ‘Big Three’

By Adam Dodge - Senior Writer

Beginning the 2008 season without co-aces John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar at the top of the rotation was cause for major concern within the Angels’ organization and its fan base. How could a team reliant on pitching to carry it to victory survive the early season without its two best? That question was answered immediately and emphatically.

Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders, expected in the off-season to wage a battle for the 5th and final spot in the rotation, have pitched more like number ones than number fives. In fact both may, if not, are expected to represent the Angels at Yankee Stadium in the All-Star game in two weeks.

Santana’s 9 wins are good for fifth place in the American League. His 3.28 ERA ranks eighth. And his 106 strikeouts are good for third. The 2008 version of the hard throwing right-hander is the antithesis of the pitcher that took the mound in 2007.

After a solid first two big league seasons, which saw him post 28 wins against 16 losses, Santana regressed in 2007 losing twice as many decisions (14) than he won (7). Most of his troubles occurred on the road where he posted a despicable 8.38 ERA.

Aside from the well documented mechanical issues, which plagued Santana a year ago, it has been his performance on the road in 2008, which has propelled him to consideration as one of the top right-handed pitchers in the American League. His 6-1 record away from Angel Stadium leads the Angels’ staff.

A crisper fastball, tighter slider, developing change-up and pin-point command have put Santana in the ace category, at least thus far in 2008.

Saunders, a former first round pick, had walked through the revolving door between Anaheim and Salt Lake the past two seasons. Prior to spring training and the injuries to Lackey and Escobar it appeared as though 2008 would once again see Saunders struggle to maintain a place in the Angels’ rotation, despite posting 15 wins against just 8 losses in his first two big league seasons.

Once thought to be a valuable insurance policy, Saunders takes the hill today against the Oakland Athletics looking to add to his League leading 11 victories. His 1.15 WHIP is good for ninth in the American League and his 3.06 ERA ranks seventh.

Saunders has taken above average stuff and kept away from the middle of the zone. He has pitched like a ten year veteran and has risen to the occasion in crucial situations.

The contributions of Saunders and Santana as well as the rest of the pitching staff, have allowed the Angels to absorb the early season losses of Lackey and Escobar. While Escobar is likely out for the remainder of 2008 and possibly beyond John Lackey is back.
Lackey has made nine starts since returning from the disabled list in May. He has pitched into the seventh inning or beyond in each of them. His 1.44 ERA would lead the Major Leagues if he were eligible (innings pitched). Amazingly, Lackey looks significantly more dominant than he did when he won the AL ERA title a season ago.

With a struggling offense, the Angels will once again count on the arms to carry them to an American League West title and beyond.

The emergence of Santana and Saunders as front line pitchers is huge but is trumped by the return of Lackey, who is pitching better than anyone in the game. Lackey can shutdown anyone and with the All-Star break just less than two weeks away Mike Scioscia can shuffle the rotation, placing Lackey in the top spot followed by a likely combination of Saunders and Santana in the two and three spots, allowing those guys to match up against other teams’ second and third starters.

This is a big advantage to the Angels, who are still searching for offensive continuity.

While the offense can be expected to be better, in fact, much better in the second half it will still lack the potency of the other contenders in the American League – notably the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox. The Angels will once again rely on pitching to get past their playoff foes come October.

The good news is Lackey is pitching better this year than at any point last year and Santana is developing into a strikeout pitcher, which have traditionally been more successful in the post-season than their pitch-to-contact counterparts. And Saunders…well he just wins games.

On starting pitching alone the Angels will have a chance against anyone come the Fall.

Jose Arredondo has provided the same lift to the bullpen as Santana and Saunders have to the rotation.

All in all, the Angels appear to be a better pitching team than they were a season ago and they continue to get better.

Scary to think how good this team might be if three hitters can get as hot as their three aces.
Love to hear what you think!

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