Commentary

Angels suddenly feel confident again

A 9-7 comeback win over Texas has players saying the race in the West isn't over

Updated: July 31, 2010, 9:56 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- A major league baseball season drags on so long that practically anything can happen.

Sometimes, it does.

That's the little toehold of hope the Los Angeles Angels are clinging to right now, that "you-never-know" factor. Other than the truly hopeless, the bickering Seattle Mariners or the moribund Baltimore Orioles, there aren't a lot of teams you can write off in July, even if there's barely any July left.

And even if Friday's 9-7 win over the first-place Texas Rangers meant nothing and was just a happy island in a sea of aggravation, the Angels still looked the refreshed team in its aftermath. Some of the players were even thinking of the big picture, how this rapidly disintegrating pennant race might become one again. Maybe they're dreamers, but what's wrong with that?

"We never have to give up, you know, we just have to keep fighting," Ervin Santana said. "You never know what's going to happen. You can be 20 games out and then come back ... you never know."

If the Angels need proof that nothing is over until it's over in this game, they need only cast their eyes toward the Midwest. On June 9, the Chicago White Sox were eight games under .500 and 9½ games out of first place in the American League Central. A month and two days later, they were 11 over and in first.

After Friday night's unlikely explosion of runs, the Angels are eight games out with two more games this weekend to try to chip away at the Rangers' lead. Is it going to happen? Probably not. The loss of Joel Pineiro erodes the only reliable part of this team, its starting pitching.

But is it possible? Sure. For one thing, the Angels play the Rangers nine more times, a slightly larger number than their deficit.

"We can do it, it's no problem," Bobby Abreu said. "We can push it and we have the team."

Things were far from hopeless on July 20, before the Angels went into an ill-timed skid, dropping seven of eight to lose four games in the standings and fall nine games back. They weren't keeping up with the Rangers on the field or on the telephone. The Angels made two trades, the Rangers made four. Texas' most recent acquisition, second baseman Cristian Guzman, figures to be an official member of the team by Saturday.

The Rangers also have added Cliff Lee, who will pitch here Sunday (the second time he has faced the Angels already), Bengie Molina and Jorge Cantu, who was in town Friday but only pinch hit. The Angels continue to talk about trades, but they might be more interested in shedding payroll than in taking it on. The Alberto Callaspo and Dan Haren trades had more to do with 2011 and beyond than they did with these final months of the 2010 season.

They've been looking for hitting for months. Friday, the Angels' hitters looked refreshed by Thursday's off-day, the team's first at home since June 28 (other than the All-Star break). Rangers starter Tommy Hunter came in with some flashy numbers -- 8-0, 2.31 ERA -- but the Angels smudged them up a little. Hunter couldn't get an out in the fourth inning.

Juan Rivera, one of the Angels whose name has been mentioned in trade whispers, had a three-run blast and an RBI single. Angels fans have been clamoring on message boards and call-in shows to dump this guy for weeks, but Friday he finally helped them pull out a big win.

"He's been one of the few guys who has swung the bat well," manager Mike Scioscia said. "We're going to need that kind of production from Juan as we move forward. He's a second-half player and he had a good night tonight."

Mike Napoli, another player who could draw some interest, roped an RBI double to center.

The most surprising part of the Angels' recent meltdown was the total lack of offensive chemistry. With Howie Kendrick and Rivera hitting low in the order, the Angels kind of thought they'd have depth. Instead, they mostly had outs, over and over. By the end of that sixth Friday, the Angels had scored more runs than they did in the entire Boston series.

One thing they hadn't been worrying about is pitching. Santana did it all Friday night. He gave up 10 hits, walked two, struck out four, balked once, threw a wild pitch and gave up a home run. At one point, he rocked into his delivery and held onto the ball, fumbling it at the last second. That was the balk.

"I didn't have anything -- no command, no concentration," Santana said. "It was a good battle. We got away with the win. I have to credit my team. They did a great job."

Early on, Santana didn't look like the only Angel lulled to sleep by the soothing sounds of irrelevance. The whole stadium, which eventually filled up with about 43,000 people on fireworks night, felt about as alive as a rock pile.

The Angels, who contributed to those surroundings by free falling in the standings, then reflected them. Santana was getting whacked around. Erick Aybar threw a ball over Maicer Izturis' head for a first-inning error that ushered in three unearned runs.

"We need to play better," Scioscia said. "It was good to see our bats get rolling."

Scene and heard

The injury excuse is the last redoubt of many a beleaguered head coach or manager, but Scioscia's not resorting to it. Yes, the Angels lost their best hitter, Kendry Morales, to a broken leg; their innings-eating starter, Pineiro, to a strained rib-cage muscle; and their key utility guy, Izturis, to a strained forearm.

But who is going to stop to feel sorry for them?

"There's nothing that has happened to us that doesn't happen in baseball every day," Scioscia said. "Our problem is not being injured. It's guys not playing up to their level. There are 29 other teams out there that are as banged-up as we are."

Quote of the day

"We still have, like, 10 games where we play each other. We just have to do it ourselves." -- Abreu on playing the Rangers.

Looking ahead

Haren's Angels season nearly was limited to a single start, but he recovered after being struck in the forearm by a Kevin Youkilis line drive and said he was fine to make Saturday's start. He struck out eight Boston Red Sox in 4 2/3 innings in Monday's debut. The Angels acquired Haren last week from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Joe Saunders and three minor league pitchers.

The Rangers announced Rich Harden will be activated from the disabled list to start Saturday's game. The man who was supposed to start, Scott Feldman, is being pushed to the bullpen.

Harden's grasp on the spot might also not be permanent, however, as lefty Derek Holland may be a couple of weeks away from rejoining the Texas staff. Harden once was a hard thrower, but injuries have taken their toll. He averaged only five innings per start before going on the DL because of a strained gluteal muscle.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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