Commentary

Suddenly, Angels in pennant race

Things go from hopeless to hopeful after pitching clinches series win over Rangers

Updated: July 21, 2011, 9:54 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Since the Los Angeles Angels emerged, groggily, from their dens after the All-Star break, the team is batting .188 and has struck out 63 times in seven games.

Yet they pulled on their fancy travel clothes to board an airplane bound for the muggy East Coast on Thursday afternoon with all sorts of notions about a pennant race that, 19 hours earlier, would have seemed like delusional thinking.

For preserving that bit of fun, they can thank Jered Weaver, Scott Downs and Jordan Walden, the trio of pitchers who have been swimming powerfully against a rip tide lately.

"The contributions from our pitching and our defense have kept us afloat, and right now, the cement shoes are consistent offense," manager Mike Scioscia said. "We've got to shed that. We've got to be a little productive offensively to let our guys pitch a little better."

[+] EnlargeJered Weaver
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesThough he appears pumped up on this play, Jered Weaver said it's probably best not to put too much emphasis on one series.

Pitch a little better? Wasn't he close enough to see Weaver's masterful seven innings in Thursday's 1-0 win over the Texas Rangers, whose starter, C.J. Wilson, had the delightful experience of swallowing a loss after giving up two hits in eight innings? To ask Weaver -- or the late-inning relief combo of Downs and Walden -- to pitch any better seems a bit greedy, doesn't it?

Then again, Scioscia's job is to take things apart and study the insides, not to let the panorama unfold. The lack of runs has forced Angels starters to work, often, against their game plans, throwing some of their nastier pitches early in games as they desperately try to work out of jams, rather than keeping a couple of tricks tucked away for the later moments when hitters start to figure them out.

Weaver (13-4) is piling up stressful pitches, that's for sure, including the 122 he needed to keep some powerful hitters from breaking things open Thursday. He had to show them everything: breaking balls in fastball counts, off-speed pitches in hard-to-reach locations, humped-up fastballs in the early innings. But the Rangers made the mistake of giving something away -- Endy Chavez botching Mike Trout's fly ball to usher in the game's only run -- and these teams tend to turn gifts into weapons when they meet. In the past two years, the Angels and Rangers have played 28 games, each side winning 14. Half of those games have been decided by a single run.

They should just skip the head-to-head portion of the schedule, saving everybody a lot of travel and headaches.

But where's the fun in that? Going into the sixth inning Wednesday night, the Angels were staring at the possibility of a glum August and September. Then they rallied for six runs, Downs pitched three scoreless innings, Weaver won his second game since the break, Walden got his second save in two days and it looks as if that pennant race might happen after all.

Instead of being seven games out, teetering on mail-the-rest-in mode, the Angels are three out and heading to play one of the worst teams in the American League, the Baltimore Orioles.

But the Angels have been doing this kind of stuff for a while. The atmosphere inside their clubhouse wasn't as jubilant as it was in the stands. Quietly pleased might be a good way of describing it.

"I think it's a little too early to get hyped up over this one series," Weaver said. "Obviously, it's important to take two of three from those guys, because we're chasing them right now."

Weaver clearly is this team's MVP. He's also its Cy Young, not to mention perhaps everybody's Cy Young. Yet Downs, the savvy lefty with the 88 mph fastball, and Walden, the 23-year-old closer who could shatter a car's windshield with a small rock, have kept things from spiraling in the second half.

And yeah, they're kind of enjoying the ride. Downs, 35, spent all but the first few days of his career pitching for Montreal and Toronto, so he's in love with the idea of tasting a pennant race. In Toronto, the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox had typically snuffed out his team's hopes by about Aug. 1. Its pennant race became about tripping up one of those two teams short of the World Series where they could.

"That's the reason why I came over here, to pitch in tight games in a race," Downs said.

For Walden, the challenge is staying contained, not finding motivation. You could see Wednesday night that pitching in a big game -- against a team that has its offices 10 minutes from where he grew up -- had him a little jacked up. But he's learning to contain the adrenaline rather than letting it wash over him, spotting his explosive fastballs where the Rangers couldn't do much with them.

"Every time I go out there, I'm more and more comfortable," Walden said.

If those kinds of things keep happening, maybe the Angels can keep marching ahead, one very heavy step at a time.

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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