Tuesday, September 15, 2009

By Zach Stoloff -- Angelswin.com columnist

Whatever has happened up until now in 2009 is irrelevant. The Angels’ season starts today.

Opening a three game set in Boston at imposing Fenway Park, the team finds itself in a position of power, six games up on the Texas Rangers in the AL West with 19 to play. However, this is still palpable tension in the standings, as the Rangers have refused to go away, impressively hanging around for what now feels like an eternity. Moreover, their schedule is significantly easier than Los Angeles’ in September, which brings us to why this today is the apex point of the Angels’ season.

Beginning with this series with Boston, the Halos have a stretch of nine games against the Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Rangers. So, while the team seems to have a comfortable lead in the division, it is a tenuous hold at best. If Mike Scioscia and his bunch do not play well against Boston and New York—and Texas continues to keep the heat on—then that gives the Rangers an opportunity to control their own destiny head-to-head against LA.

Right now, the Angels hold all the cards; realistically all they have to do is tread water for the rest of the season, and with a magic number of 14 only have to hope that Texas doesn’t go virtually undefeated. However, if they can’t maintain their lead against the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox, then the AL West will essentially be decided in a best-of-seven series between the Rangers and Angels, a matchup which the Halos don’t necessarily want.

So with 19 games left in the season, the next 9 against the best in the American League, and an additional four against Texas, what do the Angels have to do to maintain their lead, and capture their fifth Western Division Championship in the last six years?

1. Keep the rotation rolling.

As I recently wrote, it’s no secret that the starting pitching has been disgustingly good as of late. There’s a real sense that the members of the five man rotation are feeding off each other’s energy, pushing their teammates to new heights. This has enabled LA to continue about their winning ways while the lineup has reverted to a relatively anemic state. This is a trend that needs to continue.

Though the offense carried the team for most of the season, the Angels have no chance of matching up with the loaded lineups of Boston, Texas, and New York without the pitching to keep those bats down. And if the rotation continues to be as good as it has, then quite frankly the Halo hitters don’t need to be nearly as good as they were in July and August. That being said…

2. Be patient with the offense.

In late April into early May the Angels’ hitters looked completely listless outside of Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter. However, it was clear that a number of the lineup regulars had not hit their stride at that point, performing far below their career averages.

All of a sudden, it seemed as if every hitter day-in and day-out got absurdly hot. A big surprise for a team that was known more for its National League style of baseball than for its home run hitters in recent years, the offense picked the team off its butt and carried it for nearly two months. However, the bubble was sure to burst.

Since basically every bat in the lineup got hot at the same time, then it was almost a certainty that, at some point, they would all go cold together, too. And that is where the Angels find themselves now. However, because of Mike Scioscia’s small ball philosophy, the team has continued to manufacture just enough runs to keep winning. So, the moral of the story is that baseball seasons are filled with peaks and valleys, and right now the only remedy for the Halo’s stalling offense is patience.

3. Solidify the defense

Whether it be Bobby Abreu last weekend, or Mike Napoli and Chone Figgins last night, the Angels have committed a number of costly defensive mistakes of late. There is not much to say about this trend except for that it must stop, immediately. For a team that takes many comeback and one-run victories, runs cannot be given away.

4. Trust the bullpen

If someone had said in early May that, by September, LA’s bullpen would be a strength and roles would be well-defined, they would have been called crazy. Now, the Angels have a well-established bridge to a well-established (if recently shaky) closer. At this point in the season, there are no reinforcements coming, and Bulger and Jepsen seem to have taken to their seventh and eighth inning roles, respectively.

With all the talk of the need for veteran relievers, what gets lost is the fact that during the 2002 season, the team relied on an entirely unproven relief corps linking to closer Troy Percival. K-Rod was a rookie, and Brendan Donnelley and Ben Weber were unproven journeymen, yet somehow that trio provided a rock solid lead-in to an elite closer. Kevin Jepsen, Jason Bulger, and Darren Oliver look to mirror that success.

5. Don’t watch the scoreboard

This probably need not be said with General Scioscia in charge, whose one-day-at-a-time philosophy has made the Angels the most politically correct, least-quotable team in sports. Remember, this was the man who denied that there was anything “imminent” a mere minutes before the team acquired Scott Kazmir.

But the upshot of this eyes-ahead attitude is that nothing ever seems to faze this team. Ultimately, Scioscia knows that the only thing that his team can control is how they play, a vaguely zen or stoic state of mind. However, this has also, undoubtedly, been a large part of the reason the team has been so consistently good this decade, putting the late-season freefalls that characterized Angels teams of the ‘90s in the past.


By all rights, the Angels should be fine. All they have to continue to do is play the way they have all season, and draw on their experience and pedigree in the heat of a pennant race. And as for the fans, whatever happens over the next 19 games, the Los Angeles Angels have given them a full season of meaningful, exciting baseball games into September.

You’ve got to love a pennant race
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