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Subtle change in lineup provides spark

ANAHEIM -- For weeks, Mike Scioscia searched for it, fumbling around grasping blindly at times. He needed to find a button that would spring his listless team to life.

He tried a few things, tinkering mostly with the personnel of an ailing bullpen and a bench that was hardly there. Some guys came up. Some guys went down. But it wasn't until Friday that Scioscia found the switch that appears to have finally given the Los Angeles Angels the confidence they left behind in Arizona.

And it seems so trivial.

Scioscia just inserted Howie Kendrick into the No. 2 hole, slotting the big boppers in the middle of the lineup down one place each. If you're watching on TV, you might not even notice. If you're one of those hitters, it felt like the earth was shifting beneath you.

For Bobby Abreu, the mindset change from being a No. 2 hitter to a No. 3 hitter is a major shift in focus. Guys who hit second get assists. Guys who hit third score goals. Sunday, Abreu curled one in -- a two-run home run off Trevor Cahill to break open the Angels' 4-0 win that capped a sweep the Oakland A's.

"I hit third pretty much my whole career. I really like that spot," Abreu said. "I feel so comfortable there."

Much of this season has looked like a quest for comfort from an Angels team that has looked uncharacteristically jumpy and stressed out. Scioscia's lineup change, which figures to stick around for a while, might have been the gesture that lets everyone relax. Kendrick doesn't have to sit around for two innings before he gets to swing the bat, and swinging the bat is the reason he's here. He never asked to be moved up from the No. 7 hole, but he's not complaining about it.

"It's just fun," Kendrick said. "It's the same game. I haven't really changed anything, but you obviously want to get on base for Bobby, Torii [Hunter] and [Hideki] Matsui."

The story of this weekend's sweep was largely written by the starting pitchers. Joel Pineiro (3-4) did exactly what Joe Saunders had done two days earlier: He shut the A's out for nine innings. The Angels needed to use only two relievers in three days, meaning their key late-inning arms got a rare chance to rest -- and they're probably going to need it, because the next stop is the tiny, wind-fanned Ballpark in Arlington.

But with the names the A's are rolling out in their lineup these days, you expect shutouts from time to time.

The longer-term benefit to the Angels might have been the wake-up call for the middle of their lineup, which has failed to produce in the clutch most of the year. Kendrick, Abreu, Hunter, Kendry Morales and Matsui combined to go 19-for-54 (.352) with three home runs and 14 RBIs in this series. The Angels outscored Oakland, which has lost five in a row, 20-3 in the three games.

Before the switch, Matsui was stuck in the worst slump of his career. He went 4-for-9 and drove in four runs. The spark for the lineup shuffle, Scioscia said, was to give Abreu more RBI opportunities. He has driven in at least 100 runs seven times, but with the bottom part of the Angels' lineup a wasteland most of the year -- and with Erick Aybar struggling -- he was rarely getting chances.


"Look what he did with [Chone] Figgins in front of him last year," Kendrick said. "Those guys thrive on it. Once Aybar starts getting those balls to fall, hopefully I keep doing what I'm doing, Bobby does what he does and that only keeps us rolling as a team."

This would be an opportune time for the Angels to start rolling, because after barely glimpsing the rest of their division for five weeks, they are in the thick of it. Four of their next eight series are against division opponents before interleague play -- their favorite part of the schedule -- takes over.

"It doesn't matter if you're playing in your division or out of your division. You need to play good baseball," Scioscia said. "There are things we saw in the first month of the season that were obviously eyesores."

BY THE NUMBERS

Abreu's home run was his fifth, far from an astronomical number nearly one-fourth of the way through the season. Still, he is off to a far more powerful start to 2010 than he was last year.

Abreu didn't hit his first home run of 2009 until May 26, his 42nd game as an Angel. It became something of a running story line: Had Abreu lost all his power? He wound up hitting 15, which was not far off his usual pace. Abreu's career high was 31 in 2001 while he was still in Philadelphia.

The other surprising thing about Sunday's homer was that it came on the first pitch. Abreu, one of the game's most patient hitters, rarely swings at the first pitch. Maybe that gives him the advantage of surprise.

"If it's there, you're going to hack," Abreu said. "Everyone knows I take the first pitch."

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"In this division, the team that pitches the best and plays the best defense is going to be on top." -- Pineiro.

LOOKING AHEAD

The Angels get their first shot at the leader of the AL West, and the timing might be opportune. The teams are headed opposite directions. The Rangers were swept in a three-game weekend series versus Toronto.

Scott Kazmir (2-3, 6.82 ERA) is scheduled to start Monday night. If Kazmir has another start in which he needs over 100 pitches to get through five innings, the Angels might re-evaluate his spot in the rotation. The good news for Kazmir, a native of Houston, is that he's in his home state. He also has tended to dominate the Rangers, going 6-1 with a 2.05 ERA lifetime.

The Angels face young lefty Derek Holland, who was dominating at Triple-A Oklahoma (0.93 ERA) when the Rangers promoted him last week. Holland pitched six scoreless innings against the A's in his season debut for Texas.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.