Sitting at the ballpark on an unusually breezy August night, it was easy to see what exactly makes the Los Angeles Angels and the Tampa Bay Rays playoff contenders and two of the American League’s most dangerous teams. There is size, speed, power, strength, and the glue that holds them all together.
But unfortunately for both clubs, there isn’t all that much substance. Substance, as in what wins in the playoffs. As in what pops champagne bottles and schedules victory parades. The Angels and Rays have become two of baseball’s premier teams because of the arms they roll out on any given night. Who toes the rubber determines the backbone, and destiny, of a ball club.
Sure, it was a great night at the park, a lot of fun. Old men to the left yuck it up with their cronies. Old women to the right coax their grandkids into indulging in an ice cream cone with them. Mothers and fathers enjoy a night of hot dogs rather than steaming over that pot of boiling linguine. Kids turn their tongues into distorted colors of sugar while racing up to the dugout in between innings in hopes of snagging a ball. Truly a night of family fun.
But I couldn’t have been the only one sitting there thinking, “Geez, since when did the identity of these two teams change so much. Where did the pitching go?” And that has been the problem with both the Angels and Rays this year, a year that could still be turned to gold for either franchise if they got back to their roots.
It was weird watching Mike Scioscia’s club take on his protégé’s boys, that being Joe Maddon’s Rays. It was like these two teams both changed alike with the times. They were two dogs showing off the same tricks, except the tricks aren’t theirs. The Angels don’t live and die with the long ball. They thrive and survive with quality arms and a conveyor belt offense that would make any Ford assembly line blush.
The Rays, all one season of the current franchise*, didn’t tangle with the Phillies last October by relying on Ben Zobrist’s bat and a newfound difference maker at the top of the order in Jason Bartlett.
*I view the Tampa Bay franchise as two different parts. Part one is from inception through the 2007 season. Part two is from the ’08 season to the present. After new management had a couple years to draft and establish some of their own players, we saw what this talented roster could do, beginning last season. This isn’t the same organization as the one Lou Piniella mangled, so I don’t consider them as such. Back to the column.
They represented the American League in the Fall Classic by riding the power arms of Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and an intimidating bullpen. So I ask on behalf of both teams, where in the world did those types of guys go?
Monday night gave us offense and a snail-paced game courtesy of walks and escalating pitch counts. Vladimir Guerrero cranked two homers, his first one coming off of Garza, and the second—the 400th of his career—coming off of Russ Springer. Kendry Morales, the bright young hitter who has quietly made Angels fans forget about losing out on the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes last winter, also added his 24th and 25th bombs of the season.
Evan Longoria took a Sean O’Sullivan fastball and turned it around real quick in the top of the first inning, crushing a double off the top of the left centerfield wall, scoring Carl Crawford. Zobrist followed with a single that plated Longoria. After flying out to center in his first at-bat of the evening, Bartlett followed with a homer, double, and triple in his next three. A single shy of the cycle, Kevin Jepsen caught him looking in the top of the eighth on a cutter that shaved the outside corner.
In the end, Brian Fuentes saved an 8-7 win for the Angels—just barely, as Juan Rivera caught Zobrist’s fly ball for the final out while leaning over the short wall down the left field line—and Orange County slept easy and happily. For one night at least.
The Angels hold a four game lead over the Texas Rangers, but only because they rank second in the A.L. in runs scored. How long is that going to last, this run scoring binge? It’s gotten them this far, but I wonder. I wonder only because we’ve all seen powerful lineups fizzle at the sight of hot pitching in a short playoff series (the ’08 Chicago Cubs, anyone?)
The Angels are 12th in earned runs in the league, and that isn’t the recipe that has brought them a surfeit of division titles and a world championship during Scioscia’s tenure as manager. There used to be intimidating arms at the back of the bullpen, guys with big fastballs and personas that would strike some semblance of fear and presence when they jogged in from beyond the outfield fence.
Now? The bullpen is full of youngsters and Darren Oliver and Brian Fuentes, two vets that are much better suited for carving up lefties but not carrying the bulk of high-leverage innings.
Jered Weaver has quietly put together a great season, and John Lackey has been pitching like an ace that is headed for free agency—which is to say dominant—but that’s it. Those two guys better not lose in the playoffs. Joe Saunders is on the DL now, and Ervin Santana hasn’t been seen since he went home on vacation last winter.
As for the Rays? I don’t see the intimidation they had last year.
Kazmir and his 6.50 ERA look wounded on the mound. I fully expect “Have you seen him? Please call!” ads with Andy Sonnastine’s mug on them to be popping up on light poles around my neighborhood any day now. David Price still oozes potential, but his development didn’t accelerate as quickly in the big league rotation as the Rays thought it would. Garza and Shields sport respectable ERA’s, but they get so amped and out of control at times that they make me want to sit with an oxygen mask on.
I still like J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour at the back of the bullpen, but only Howell has built on last season’s success and is currently closing. But the good thing for both of these teams is that they have the horses to win the race, and they’ve done it before. They know they have it in them.
The Angels will most likely get to the playoffs, but the Rays, while playing in a much tougher division, are currently two-and-a-half games behind Boston in the wild-card standings. Tampa Bay could overcome the Red Sox and the Rangers and get to October, but they need to be the Rays, not the Phillies.
The Angels could go deep into October, but they need to be the Angels, not their version of the ’27 Yankees. There are always those few bookworms in high school who want so badly to hang out with the jocks and fit in, but at some point they realize that they just don’t quite cut it. It’s not in their genes to act like idiots on Friday night and try to act tough to impress the girls.
But then they get a little older and they realize that it’s perfectly OK to be themselves. They meet their own friends, go to college, get A’s, get great jobs, and the world is forever at their fingertips.
The Angels and Rays want good offenses, for sure, but they will run into problems when they look to the lineup to define them. Sometimes you just need to be reminded of what stands at your core.
You can reach Teddy Mitrosilis at email@example.com.