Angels, alone at top, don't feel like it
Los Angeles leads the AL West, but still feels there's a lot of work to do
OAKLAND -- It might seem as if the Los Angeles Angels are coming at the rest of the American League West like an 18-wheeler careening down a mountain road with faulty brakes, but their charge hasn't felt nearly as violent from the driver's seat.
This is a team that's somehow on a roll without ever actually hitting its stride.
"To be honest, it kind of feels like we're still scratching the surface a little bit," pitcher Scott Kazmir said.
The Angels have practically breezed into first place, where they now sit alone for the first time this year. After Monday's 4-2 win in Oakland, they've made up 5½games and passed two teams in a matter of 15 days. They've won six games in a row and nine of the past 10, grinding up bad teams and watery lineups -- which is what first-place teams are supposed to do.
If this were the end of the season, it would look like an epic charge -- or collapse, from the Oakland and Texas viewpoints -- but it's early June. And the Angels don't feel like they're at the top of their game. They're probably not even close.
"I definitely feel like there's more in there," catcher Bobby Wilson said. "I just feel like everyone's starting to feel a little more comfortable."
Kazmir, for example, has shown only flashes of his old self. Monday's performance was another step in that direction, but it wasn't a destination. His slider is showing signs of coming around, though he still calls it just a "show" pitch. His changeup was devastating at times Monday. He at least can spot his fastball to both sides of the plate, an important tool. But he realizes there is a lot more untapped ability than he's showing.
"It's coming," Kazmir said.
What he showed the Angels in getting into the seventh inning while allowing just five hits and striking out five A's was important: They are beginning to see the outlines of some starting pitching depth. It's no longer a two-man show of Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana.
"That was exciting to watch," manager Mike Scioscia said. "I think that was some of the best stuff we've seen from Kaz in a while."
That rest of the division should probably be a little worried that these guys got back to the perch and still don't feel they've reached any peaks or crossed any finish lines. Virtually every hitter in the lineup has numbers below their career norms. Most of the relief pitchers have struggled to throw strikes. The rotation is only now beginning to round into the form the Angels expected it to show.
The Angels have gone 8-1 since they lost their best hitter, Kendry Morales, to a freak injury. During this winning streak, their starting pitchers are a combined 6-0 with a 1.94 ERA. But nobody was doing any touchdown dances Monday or at any other time on this road trip.
"Yeah, I think there still is upside," Scioscia said. "We're going to need it."
And as for the weak stretch of schedule they're enjoying, cut them some slack. The Angels battled through the second-toughest schedule in the majors for the first six weeks of the season.
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It might not be a coincidence that two of Kazmir's best starts have come with Bobby Wilson behind the plate.
As good as Mike Napoli's hitting has been -- and he has been pounding the ball for a month -- it's becoming apparent that the Angels are better off with him somewhere other than behind the plate. That's why Jeff Mathis' return -- probably on Saturday in Los Angeles -- could be another important date for the Angels. The Angels could move Napoli to first base and leave him there.
Kazmir said he had excellent chemistry with Wilson these past two starts.
"I really didn't shake him off that much," Kazmir said. "Whenever he'd go to a location, he'd give a good target. It just seemed we had a good rhythm going, a good tempo."
Napoli's catcher's ERA is 4.88, the worst among any of the three primary catchers. He is the only catcher with a losing record when he starts. The Angels are 7-0 when Wilson starts, 6-5 when Mathis starts and 17-22 when Napoli starts.
Scene and heard
Oakland hitting coach Jim Skaalen wasn't happy about a pitch on the outside corner that plate umpire Eric Cooper called a strike with Kurt Suzuki batting in the fifth inning. The following half-inning, Skaalen started yelling from the A's dugout when Oakland pitcher Ben Sheets didn't get a similar call.
Cooper ejected Skaalen from the A's dugout, sparking a confrontation with Oakland manager Bob Geren. The crowds here are so sparse -- just 10,071 bought tickets Monday -- you could actually hear the two men yelling at one another all the way up in the press box, perched just under the top deck.
Quote of the day
"The chemistry came back for our team. We never were down. We know we were battling the whole time, just looking to find a way to start to win some games. We did it." -- Bobby Abreu
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Jered Weaver (5-2, 2.74 ERA) is looking like a lock to be the Angels' lone representative at the July 13 All-Star game in Anaheim. Though he went nearly a month without a win, it had more to do with a lack of run support than anything Weaver was doing wrong.
He struck out nine batters in his last start in Kansas City and hasn't allowed an earned run in 16 straight innings. He has a 1.36 ERA in his past four starts. He has owned the A's, posting a 1.17 ERA in his past four starts against them.
He'll pitch Tuesday opposite Oakland right-hander Vin Mazzaro (1-0, 6.08), who was recalled May 20 from Triple-A Sacramento. Mazzaro is coming out of the bullpen to fill in for Oakland ace Brett Anderson, who is on the disabled list with elbow tendinitis.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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