Are you kidding me?
Just when it looked like the Angels were starting to put everything together, their ace pitcher Jered Weaver had to leave Monday’s game against the Yankees in the first inning for an undisclosed injury.
After all the lows to start the season—the Pujols home run drought, the shutouts, the injuries and the losses—the team had put together a modest six-game winning streak and managed to climb out of the division cellar and into second place, a mere 6.5 games behind Texas and well within striking distance of the wild card.
Things were definitely looking up as the Halos returned home to welcome the Yankees for the first three games of a nine-game homestand. All of that came to a grinding halt in the first inning when Weaver fired a strike passed Robinson Cano and, during the follow-through, appeared to injure his knee. (It was subsequently diagnosed as a lower back injury and Weaver was placed on the DL.)
He tried to walk it off and even went so far as to attempt a warm-up pitch, but it was obvious he was in pain and he immediately headed to the dugout and continued into the clubhouse. As he was walking off the field, Weaver screamed “@$%^&@!” so loudly that I practically heard it all the way in Baltimore.
With the season having gone the way it has so far, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone to see the Angels fall apart after Weaver's injury, and for a moment it looked like they were going to do exactly that. Uncharacteristic defensive mistakes led to unearned runs and an early deficit.
But guess what? They didn’t fall apart. Instead they came together and forged a rally that put them back in the lead. They held on to win that night, running their winning streak to seven games in the process.
And the next night was even better, highlighted by Dan Haren turning in his second consecutive stellar start and Mark Trumbo winning the game with a walk-off home run to push the winning streak to nine.
Even Wednesday night’s loss didn’t do anything to detract from what the team has accomplished in the past 10 days. By playing inspired baseball for the first extended period of time this season, they clearly sent a message to the rest of the league and anyone else doubting them. And that message, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is: Reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Do they still have problems to solve? Yes. Weaver going on the disabled list is a big concern, especially with Ervin Santana struggling to find consistency. But based on what I’ve seen these past 10 days, which was a complete turnaround from the previous 50, I still believe the Angels will be nipping at the Rangers’ heels (if not in front of them altogether) by the All-Star break.
Here are five reasons why:
1. Bullpen stability— The trade for Ernesto Frieri has been nothing short of an answered prayer for a team that desperately needed it. In 12 games since he joined the team, he has been, in one word, filthy. A better word might me untouchable, given that he has yet to allow a hit in 12 innings of work.
Together with Scott Downs, the Angels have a formidable closer tandem that assures confidence whenever they take a lead into the ninth inning. Do not underestimate the importance of that on a team’s overall success.
2. Albert’s wake-up call—Whatever the reason (no longer feeling pressure to live up to the contract, finished adjusting to a new team/league, etc) it seems clear from these past 10 days that the Albert Pujols the team thought they were getting has finally arrived.
Sporting a robust .375 average with five home runs and 10 runs batted in, Pujols has not only lifted himself out the doldrums but his teammates as well. The Angels have averaged 4.6 runs per game during that span, a full run more than the previous 10. This is the kind of offense the team had envisioned when it inked Pujols back in December, and there’s nothing to suggest that it won’t continue.
3. A true starting lineup—After juggling players and positions and batting orders, it seems, that through a variety of circumstances, the Angels fell upon a winning combination this past week-and-a-half. Trumbo has been a fixture in right field, as has Mike Trout in left and Peter Bourjos in center; each have a defined role both on the field and in the lineup.
Trumbo in particular seems to have benefited the most, as he hit .349 over the last 10 games (he started every one of them). The third base platoon continues and it would be nice if either Alberto Callaspo or Maicer Izturis stepped up to claim the job full-time, but the current situation hasn’t seemed to hurt the team at all.
The big question is, what to do now that Torii Hunter has rejoined the team, and, looking ahead, what to do with Vernon Wells once he gets healthy again. Can you really pay someone $26 million to sit on the bench all season? It may come to that, a trade (if you can find a taker to absorb even a part of that monstrosity of a contract) or his outright release because, barring injury, there’s no way Mike Trout is coming out of the lineup.
But that’s a question for the accountants to handle. Mike Scioscia’s job is to put the best lineup out on the field each night and right now he has a great one. Other than subbing Hunter for Bourjos, I wouldn’t expect any other moves.
4. Haren’s return/Richards’ arrival—As I alluded to earlier, Dan Haren is once again pitching like the ace that he is. His 21 combined strikeouts in his past two starts, both Angels' victories, is a great sign that the 31-year-old is back in command of his full arsenal. With Weaver going down, the team is going to need Harden to utilize every bit of it to minimize his teammate’s absence.
With Weaver out, that opens the door for highly-touted prospect Garrett Richards to step up and show why many people in the organization believe he is a future ace-in-the-making. If he performs as expected and Haren continues to stay in form, the team will continue its winning ways while Weaver recovers.
5. Texas two-step (backwards)—If it seems like the Rangers have had everything go right for them so far this season, that’s probably because it has. Josh Hamilton is chasing the Triple Crown, Nelson Cruz has been healthy and productive all season and Yu Darvish has at times looked unhittable. Does anybody expect that to last? I certainly don’t.
Hamilton’s numbers are going to come back down to earth in the same manner that Pujols’ are coming up. Cruz has been injury-prone so it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him miss some time. And if they haven’t already, teams are going to start getting their second look at Darvish, meaning it’s going to be tougher for him to continue fooling Major League hitters.
Bottom line: Expect the Rangers to help close the gap on their own. They’ve already begun doing just that, going 11-10 in their last 21 games, allowing the Angels to climb within 5.5 games.
A few more weeks like that, coupled with a few more weeks of Angels baseball circa the past 10 days, and the once unbeatable Rangers might not even be in first place in their own division. Now who would’ve thought that when May started?