Los Angeles Angels Still in AL West Race Despite Early-Season Pitfalls

Bill MartinezContributor IMay 19, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 13:  Pitcher Matt Palmer #32 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is congratulated by catcher Mike Napoli #44 after picking up his first major league complete game victory, against the Boston Red Sox on May 13, 2009 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California.  The Angels won 8-4.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

What a difference a year makes in the American League West.

Last year at this time, the Angels were tied with the surprising Oakland A's atop the division (despite a complete lack of offense), and would find themselves out of first place just two more days en route to the franchise's first 100-win campaign.

Fast forward a year and the team finds itself in a very unfamiliar position. Though they are just three games back of their 39-game record in 2008, the Halos find themselves looking up at none other than the Texas Rangers.

Texas had its lead in the West shaved to four games with the Angels' 10-6 win over the Seattle Mariners on Monday, but the differences between this season and last are telling.

Nobody really figures that the Rangers are going anywhere this season despite their offense already clicking and the starters looking as though they might actually be respectable this season.

However, the jury will remain out on Mike Maddux's staff until July and August, when the blistering summer of central Texas begins to take effect.

Also, the Angels don't figure to be dealing with all the drama that has befallen the team during the first two months.

From the horrific tragedy that claimed the life of pitcher Nick Adenhart to losing seven pitchers and their top slugger to the DL, the Angels should consider themselves grateful to be even remotely close to where they stand right now.

They have managed thanks to an offense that has generated enough punch from other spots in the lineup to help make up for the loss of Vladimir Guerrero.

Torii Hunter is on pace to have the best offensive season of his career while also continuing to play Gold Glove-caliber defense. The 33-year-old leads the club in both home runs and RBIs and is punishing pitchers that continue to make the mistake ofย  walking Bobby Abreu in front of him.

Elsewhere in the lineup, Kendry Morales hit a pair of home runs Monday to increase his total to eight on the season, hitting a respectable .287 in 136 at-bats. He has also shown significant improvement defensively at first base, so much so that fans and bloggers have dropped the call for another player to take the position.

Morales is on pace to hit 31 home runs and drive in 110, numbers that would make the decision by Tony Reagins and Mike Scioscia to stick with the young Cuban native look ingenious yet again.

But despite the exploits of Hunter, Morales and Mike Napoli (.327, 6 HR, 17 RBI in just 107 AB), the real story has been the performance of the starting rotation.

Seemingly held together with kite string and Scotch tape, the rotation has been surprisingly solid despite not having two-fifths of the projected staff until last Thursday.

Heading into Monday's games, Angels' starters were 15-8 with a 3.81 ERA, numbers that would likely be even better were it not for a bullpen that has been so bad this season that the Mariners of the mid-1990s called up to offer Bobby Ayala.

The rotation has been especially sharp this month, posting four complete games in the last 11 contests.

Jered Weaver, who has frustrated fans and fantasy owners with his roller coaster performances, has two complete games and looks more and more like the pitcher that the Halos drafted in the first round.

Elsewhere, Joe Saunders is showing that his All-Star season of 2008 was not a fluke and a 30-year-old named Matt Palmer looks as if he has supplanted all of the other contenders for the final rotation slot by doing nothing except winning this season.

Palmer, a 31st-round draft choice of the Giants in 2002, made an adjustment to his delivery this season at Salt Lake and the results have been impressive to say the least. The right-hander is 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA and an 0.975 WHIP in 26-and-two-thirds innings of work.

His most impressive start came in his last outing on May 13 against the Boston Red Sox. Tagged for four runs and four hits in the first two innings, Palmer dominated the Bosox the rest of the way, getting the last 20 consecutive outs for a stunning complete-game victory.

However, with the news of Kelvim Escobar's likely return to the rotation in early June, Palmer's days in the majors appear to be numbered.

The only down spot for the team this season has been the bullpen, though aside from the normally reliable Scot Shields, even that group has shown signs of life recently.

However, the differences there are also stark. Brian Fuentes is not making anyone forget about Frankie Rodriguez: Instead, fans have found themselves stocking up on Tums and Rolaids for when the ninth inning comes.

Sure, Fuentes has nine saves in 11 chances this season, but very few have been of the routine variety.

In fact, the southpaw has allowed at least one base-runner in eight of his 14 appearances and has gone over the 20-pitch mark six times.

The only true bright spot in the pen has been veteran Darren Oliver. The 38-year-old lefty gave up Russell Branyan's solo blast on Monday, however, the run took his ERA up to a sterling 1.47 in 18-and-one-third innings.

Should the Angels remain healthy, get the performances from this core group all season and see a marked improvement in the bullpen, then a repeat division crown could still be a reality.


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