No rest in the West
The Angels could fight a long battle for the top of their division
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Anyone who thought the Los Angeles Angels were going to grab a hold of first place on May 1 and tuck it away until the playoffs start can probably forget about it.
They're not that kind of team and this is no longer that kind of division.
The Angels have had at least a share of first place for the past 13 games, but some signs are pointing toward a wobbly stretch, with threats coming from multiple directions. Their best pitcher, Jered Weaver, isn't pitching with the same edge he had in April.
Their main rivals, the Texas Rangers, soon could inject two of the game's most feared sluggers into their lineup. The Angels just found out that their most powerful hitter, Kendrys Morales, won't be swinging a bat in a game until spring of 2012, at the earliest.
These are hold-on-tight days for the Angels, which is what made Friday's result a bit more high-leverage than your average May ballgame.
Maybe Weaver (6-3) is a victim of his own success. Few pitchers had ever begun a season on the kind of roll he started 2011 on, but clearly something has changed. Weaver started 6-0 with a 0.99 ERA and is 0-3 with a 5.50 ERA since. On Friday, he had a tendency to hang balls high over the plate, and two of them sailed high over fences.
It's not just the quantity of hit, runs and strikeouts that have changed; it's the quality of the pitches.
The Rangers saw April Weaver -- and got shut down by him for nine innings -- and now they've seen May Weaver. One was on a collision course with the Cy Young. The other looks like a middle-of-the-road No. 3 starter.
"Honestly, I don't think he had his best stuff," Ian Kinsler said Friday.
Weaver's stuff hasn't been as crisp lately, perhaps in part to the heavy workload he carried while buzz-sawing his way through April. He threw a career-high 125 pitches in his third start this season, the 15-strikeout effort against Toronto, then came back two starts later and threw 119.
Weaver's fastball rarely broke 90 mph on Friday according to the in-stadium radar gun.
Weaver insists he's not hurt, but he doesn't deny there could be a physical explanation for his sudden downturn, from dominant to decent. He has struggled to keep the ball down, often a symptom of fatigue.
"Stuff is there for the most part, but like I said it's up," Weaver said. "I don't know if that's a matter of a little dead arm or whatnot, but I feel good. The velocity's still there and stuff. I've just got to work down and move on. Obviously, it's a little frustrating."
The Rangers seem to add a player to their disabled list every day, but the Angels haven't come close to putting them away. Even with reigning MVP Josh Hamilton, their second-best hitter, Nelson Cruz and their hot-shot young closer, Neftali Feliz, all missing significant time -- and center fielder Julio Borbon going on the disabled list Friday -- the Rangers are a half-game out.
Things might stay cozy in the West. They often are lately.
Even as the Rangers were steaming toward their first-ever World Series appearance last year, they usually got a fight when they played the Angels, who lost 82 games. The teams played 19 times last year, and 10 of them were decided by one run.
The Angels have spent 18 days in first place this season, which is 14 more than they spent last year. But the AL West race has reached the quarter pole looking like there could be traffic down the stretch. The Angels' biggest lead has been two games.
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It could turn out to be more of a pillow fight than a brawl. This division is stacked with aces, including last season's Cy Young winner, Felix Hernandez, the AL ERA leader (Trevor Cahill of Oakland) and the Angels' Weaver and Dan Haren, who were virtually untouchable in April. The Angels, Oakland and Seattle, meanwhile, rank among the lowest-scoring teams in the league.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia doesn't like to talk much about other teams, but he went outside his comfort zone to make a bold proclamation before Friday night's game.
"I think our division has the best pitching," Scioscia said.
The numbers bear him out. Entering Friday's game, two of the top three pitching staffs in the league were West teams (Angels and Oakland). Four of the top six pitchers in the league, ranked by ERA, work in the AL West. The Angels have two of them and Oakland has Cahill.
Texas has Alexi Ogando (2.17). The only thing that can slow him down right now, apparently, is blisters. He struck out Torii Hunter on an elevated 95 mph fastball in the first inning and struck out Peter Bourjos on a dive-bombing 79 mph curveball in the third. His stuff is about as electric as any pitcher's in the division, even if he doesn't have the track record of others.
Divisional play is about to commence in force -- the Angels play 11 of their next 14 games inside the division -- so they'll have a chance to either seize control of their former domain or let it slip from their grasp. On Friday, their grip loosened just a bit more.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.