- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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While the Mets and Yankees are doing their media circus thing this weekend (yawn), the best interleague series in baseball will be played out West, as the Dodgers and Angels go heads-up for the soul of Southern California.
Heading into three games at Dodger Stadium, the teams are near mirror images of each other. Here's a quick primer. Tune in.
Angels: John Lackey, 10-4, 2.53 ERA, 1.15 WHIP
The kid who came up big as a rook in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series is now the least-heralded elite pitcher in baseball. He makes guys swing and miss, he goes seven or eight strong, he doesn't walk a lot of guys and he doesn't say boo. If he were pitching in New York or Chicago, he'd be a magazine cover boy. As it is, only savvy fantasy owners and Orange County season-ticket holders have a clue how good he is.
Dodgers: Brad Penny, 8-1, 2.18 ERA, 1.17 WHIP
He was a mess in the second half last year, overthrowing the fastball, melting down with runners on. But he's bounced back, working counts and situations with good judgment and running heat. And though the idea seemed preposterous six months ago, he's suddenly a lock for his second straight All-Star Game appearance.
Angels: Vladimir Guerrero, 12 HR, 61 RBI, .335/.435/.574
Along with only A-Rod and (who knew?) Prince Fielder, a guy who can and has single-handedly carried his team through rough offensive stretches this season. And as great as the numbers are, the experience of watching him play is greater still. No pitch he can't hit, no runner he won't fire for, no smile he won't flash. He plays the game the way you imagine it was played in the days of yore: on a grand scale, with swash and buckle, nothing technical and everything exuberant.
Dodgers: Russell Martin, 7 HR, 41 RBI, .291/.358/.457, 11 SB
That's right, 11 stolen bases. While also catching 60-plus games so far. The Dodgers' all-time stolen base record for a catcher is John Roseboro's 12 in 1962. That record's going down. Martin is a hard-charger, always eager for more. He's been meeting recently with base stealers Juan Pierre and Rafael Furcal to get tips on reading pitchers, looking for every advantage. That's how he rolls, legging out doubles, scoring off shallow singles. The steals are a sign of his relentless, enthusiastic approach, and his approach has quickly become the defining spirit of the team.
Angels: Kelvim Escobar, 7-3, 2.89 ERA, 1.11 WHIP
They couldn't be sure what they were going to get out of him, with his history of injuries, and they can't be sure what they're getting now will last, but so far, right now, he's been an absolute stud, the kind of second-tier guy who keys a pennant run, the kind of guy you can see slotted in the two-hole in a playoff rotation, the kind of guy who will peer out from behind his blades and just bring it.
Dodgers: Luis Gonzalez, 8 HR, 28 RBI, .287/.371/.472
He's struggling, as we knew he would, to cover ground in the outfield, but the old guy can still hit a bit, and his eight home runs and 14 doubles are second on the club. They're not world-beating numbers by any means, but they're providing a boost for a club ranked 28th (.383) in slugging percentage.
Angels: Gary Matthews Jr. versus Dodgers: Juan Pierre
Advantage Angels. Both clubs went batty in the center-field bidding wars over the winter, leaving themselves vulnerable to often nasty blogosphere critiques and harangues. The Dodger bloggers were right, it seems. Pierre's offensive numbers are career-low across the board (he's recently been moved to the eight-hole in the lineup), and he's not helping himself or his club in the field; teams are routinely running on his arm, and he's unable to get to balls he once did. Matthews, who looked ripe for a dramatic falloff from his career year, isn't on pace to equal 2006, but is significantly outperforming his pre-2006 standard, and is racking up spectacular catches in the field and anchoring the Angels' excellent up-the-middle defense.
KIDS ON THE RISE
For the Angels it's Howie Kendrick, who has the name and the game and the crooked number (47) on his back to become an Anaheim icon, and Casey Kotchman who, after losing last year to mono, is posting an ah-this-is-the-droid-we've-been-looking-for OPS of .963. For the Dodgers, in addition to Martin, it's recent call-ups Matt Kemp, who has 13 hits and 17 total bases in his first 11 games, and Hong-Chih Kuo, who in addition to pulling off one of the great bat-flip home runs (which was also, by the way, the first-ever major league home run by a Taiwan-born player) of all time, has also shown signs, with his nasty, lefty, cutty, divey stuff of being the answer to the Dodgers' back-of-the-rotation prayers. On both teams, even as they hold down the top spots in their divisions now, you can see glimpses of the future. This is what makes teams compelling. Never mind the Yankees, geared for one shot, if that. Forget the Mets, stacked with high-priced aging talent. These clubs are doing great things now and looking like they're just getting started.
And we'll close with ...
THE BIG QUESTION
The Angels are the odds-on favorite to win the AL West. Their offense is potent (top-10 in most categories) and their pitching is deep. They have questions about whether Bartolo Colon will ever be Bartolo Colon again, and questions about whether Jered Weaver and Frankie Rodriguez can stay healthy with those funky deliveries. But their big question is can they win from out front? Can they withstand what seems to be an annual Oakland Athletics late charge? There's nothing they can do to answer this question. It's a function of time and patience and game-by-game focus. But the question is out there, and they'll have to live it with it from here to October.
The Dodgers' big question -- after "where exactly did Jason Schmidt's fastball go?" -- is, will they make a deal? Can they make a deal? Can they add a big bat to infuse the offense? Will they part with some of the pipeline talent (Chad Billingsley? Andy LaRoche?) for Adam Dunn or Jermaine Dye or Scott Rolen? Or will they ride with what they have and look ahead to a bigger play for Ichiro (to play right field) next season? It's fun to think of Dunn, echoing Frank Howard, at first base, maybe with his sleeves cut off, and the buzz in LA is that they have to do something before the trade deadline, and maybe that's true. But if they're still sitting at or near the top of the division come late July, with big bucks invested in their vets, don't expect them to swap the store of youngsters for any of the guys currently being shopped. Expect them to go straight up with what they've got, no apologies and no quarter. And expect it to start Friday night against the Angels.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.
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