Thursday, September 10, 2009

(AP Photo)
Angels starting pitchers have allowed fewer than 3 earned runs in 13 of the team's last 15 games.

By Zach Stoloff -- columnist

It’s been a funny season in Anaheim. The first month and a half of the year the Angels looked dead in the water, struggling to find an identity, an offense, and relying on a patchwork rotation to get by. Then, when healthy arms returned and were expected to carry the team, the offense came alive to do just that, but the starting pitching stayed cold. The entire lineup, one through nine, continued on a torrid pace through August but has since inexplicably gone south again. Luckily, the pitchers have finally started to pick up the slack.

It’s no secret that the starting rotation has been on an absolute roll of late. This run started (not so) coincidentally around the time the club pried Scott Kazmir away from the Rays. However, the roots of the turnaround go back further than that.

Ervin Santana has probably been the best example of someone who has been getting healthy and slowly returning to the level expected of him. The former All Star was clearly not 100 percent earlier this year, his ailing elbow first delaying his season debut until mid May, and then sending him to the DL again for three weeks in late June. But even after he returned, he was completely ineffective, at one point giving up at least five runs in seven of ten starts.

However, Santana’s velocity, movement, and control have all come back with a vengeance in recent weeks, putting up quality starts in five of his last six games. Moreover, at times he has looked dominant, hitting 98 MPH in his last start against Kansas City.

Joe Saunders has taken even longer to round in to form, finally admitting last month that his shoulder had never been quite healthy at any point in 2009, then receiving a cortisone shot and some much needed rest. That prescription has paid off, apparently, as Saunders has now given up only 4 earned runs in the 17 and 1/3 innings since returning from the DL.

Kazmir, too, has followed a similar path as those two, struggling mightily for most of the year with the Rays before finally beginning to look like his former self in his last couple starts before the trade. Continuing that upward trend since, he’s inserted himself as an integral cog in the rotation already, looking every bit the up-and-coming ace by throwing 13 and 1/3 innings of two run ball with 12 strikeouts since joining the Halos.

Despite the reemergence of those three, it is probably just as important that John Lackey has reestablished himself as the unquestioned ace of the rotation. Though Big John also missed the first month and a half of the season with elbow issues, once he returned his health was never in question so much as his consistency. Infamously tossed two pitches in to his return to the mound against the Texas Rangers, it really took him about half a dozen starts to start regularly working deep into games and holding down opponents.

After a couple rough outings to end the month of August, Lackey has reasserted himself and been absolutely dominant in his last three starts, and at just the right time. In those games, he has thrown eight innings of one run ball against the Athletics, nine innings of one run ball against the Royals, and capping off the run by shutting out the Mariners. That’s two runs in his last 26 innings.

And of course, in a discussion of all the reclamation projects this year, Mr. Consistency, Jered Weaver, goes unmentioned. Well, no longer, for Weaver has been the one starting pitcher the Angels have been able to count on all season. As a reward, he has set a career high in wins with 15, and locked himself a spot in a potential postseason rotation.

Though the Angels have built their recent AL West dominance on a foundation of pitching and defense, the team that’s shown up so far in 2009 has given the fans a much different look. But while chicks may still dig the long ball, there is no question that to hold down the Boston Red Sox and finally get that Rally Monkey off their backs, the Angels need dominant starting pitching to match up with the likes of Beckett and Lester, and hold in check what is still the deepest lineup in baseball.

With a 1-2-3 punch of Lackey, Kazmir, and Weaver, this may finally be the year they do it.

Love to hear what you think!


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