Commentary

Fresh start for old rivalry

New-look A's, Angels expected to battle all season for AL West supremacy

Updated: April 7, 2009, 1:04 PM ET
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" blares from the speakers high atop Anaheim Stadium in the moments before the first pitch of Monday night's season opener. It's business as usual. The reigning American League West champion Angels have returned to defend their American League West crown for the fourth time in the past five years.

Just a little bit earlier, Nelly's "Batter Up," complete with the old riff from "The Jeffersons" -- "Now we're up in the big leagues, gettin' our turn at bat" -- was booming in the visiting A's locker room way down in the bowels of Anaheim Stadium while the home team took batting practice. It sounded a little bit like a herald from advancing troops: The onetime class of the AL West has come to reclaim the keys to the city.

[+] EnlargeHowie Kendrick
AP Photo/Mark AveryHowie Kendrick got the Angels off to a good start with a home run and a single.

The Angels' 3-0 win over the A's on Monday night was only the first of 19 games the two teams will play this year and just the beginning of a 162-game season. But whenever these rivals meet, the stakes feel high.

For the first time in the past few years, the Angels begin a season looking just a little bit vulnerable after losing starting pitchers John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar to the disabled list and the all-time single-season saves leader, Francisco Rodriguez, to a free-agent deal with the Mets.

And for the first time in Oakland's "Moneyball" era, Billy Beane and the A's begin a campaign having spent the offseason as buyers instead of sellers, adding Jason Giambi, who won the 2000 MVP award in his first go-round as an Athletic; Orlando Cabrera, the onetime Angels shortstop; and former Rockies slugger Matt Holliday.

Is it too much, too early, to anticipate a season-long battle between them?

Forgive me, I can't help myself.

Monday night's shutout notwithstanding, the A's, who scored the fewest runs in baseball last year, come into this season confident they can score.

"We're going to put runs on the board with this lineup," third baseman Eric Chavez said. "We all believe that."

And in addition to the corps of veterans it has assembled in the field, the team has put its faith in a collection of talented young pitchers, including Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Monday night's starter, Dallas Braden, who aren't afraid of the Angels or anyone else.

"We understand that we're young," said Braden, who took the loss Monday night. "But we're young enough to be dumb enough to not care about that at all."

The baseball season is a six-month exercise in maintaining your emotional equilibrium. You can't get too high or too low. You can't think too much about the schedule or the opponent. You can't entertain thoughts of rivalry or get caught up trying to send anyone a message, not in April, anyway.

"Two weeks from now, nobody remembers these first couple games," Chavez said. "The season is a process. What matters is how we come together as a group."

But make no mistake, the A's are enjoying the idea that they have a real shot this year.

"We don't look toward the pennant or anything crazy like that," Braden said. "But a lot of us have inherited the rivalry with the Angels players from [Class] A ball on up, so do we have a bit of a chip on our shoulders? Sure."

For their part, the Angels know the A's have bolstered their lineup, and they're acutely aware of the fact that three of their own key starters are missing in action as the season begins.

"We have to hold it down until those guys get back," Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said.

But the Angels come into this season the way they come into each and every season. They're talking about doing the little things -- such as running from first to third, hitting the cutoff man, being aggressive on the hill and playing tight D -- that have defined their style and philosophy in the Mike Scioscia era. And they're not sweating what the other guy is doing.

"The A's look good, the Rangers look good; I think we look good, too," new closer Brian Fuentes said. "Everyone looks good … on paper. You've got to win Game 1, and then get ready for Game 2, and then get ready to do it again the next night."

As the Angels gear up to compete for another division title, they're not looking over their shoulders at the A's.

"We're still the champs," Hunter said. "That's not trash talk; that's just the truth."

The Angels are more interested in the way outfielder Bobby Abreu's propensity for working the count will benefit and influence emerging talents such as second baseman Howie Kendrick and first baseman Kendry Morales, and they're more excited about the way Hunter has contributed to what they're trying to do in the field and at the plate.

"Guys like Torii and Abreu have fit into our system so well," Kendrick said. "Even though it's early, I think there's a real chemistry with our group."

You talk coming together as a group when you're the hunter because you don't want to get too far out in front of yourself with so much left to prove. "You have to stay true to the daily grind," Chavez says.

And you talk about chemistry when you're the hunted, because talking about the big-picture stuff just invites pressure you don't need, thoughts that have nothing to do with the task at hand.

"Pressure bursts pipes," Hunter said. "Forget pressure. Either you're going to get me or I'm going to get you. Let's play the game[s]. Let's see what it's going to be."

And so it is that the rivals, one looking to rise up with Nelly and the other looking to hold down the fort with Thin Lizzy, speak the same language, and bring the same edge to it too.

There's a hunger in the "grind," right? And in the fearless confidence welcoming "what it's going to be," too.

I'm telling you, this will be fun. This old AL West battle will feel new.

Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Eric Neel | email

Page 2 columnist
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

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