Wilson makes his Angels debut Monday (Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE)

Series Preview: Angels @ Twins

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With a disappointing home opener wrapped up, the Los Angeles Angels (1-2) head east to the Land of 1000 Lakes to take on the Minnesota Twins (0-3) in a matchup of teams trying to correct what went wrong coming out of the gates for their 2012 campaigns.

Previous Series:

Angels vs. Royals (W 5-0, L 6-3, L 7-3)

While Jered Weaver was excellent in the opener, going eight fantastic innings of a shutout, the starting pitching for the Angels, which was supposed to be their biggest strength, faltered. In the two losses, the starting pitching of Dan Haren and Ervin Santana combined for 18 hits, 10 earned runs, 4 home runs allowed, 3 walks, and 7 strikeouts in just 11 innings of work. Neither starter was able to make it out of the sixth inning. Haren, who is known for starting fast, now sits with an enormous 8.44 ERA and 2.25 WHIP while Santana carries a 7.94 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP going forward. Whether this was a case of the starters coming out flat or the Royals hitting being even better than advertised (or maybe a bit of both), this was not the look the Angels had in mind for their starting rotation starting out the season. Meanwhile, the hitting of the Angels was good, with several players batting over .400 (including Kendrys Morales’ rehabbed leg batting .417), but the lineup lacked power, hitting just one home run as a team.

Twins @ Orioles (L 4-2, L 8-2, L 3-1)

The Twins traveled to Camden Yards and suffered a sweep at the hands of the lowly Orioles. In getting swept, the Twins showed practically no hitting, with only two players batting better than .300 (Justin Morneau .400, Josh Willingham .333). The team as a whole hit for only 21 total bases in three games (the Orioles hit over twice that with 45 TB). The starting pitching did little better, as the starters combined to give up 10 earned runs in just 16 innings pitched. The starters also failed to pitch very deep into games, with Francisco Liriano pitching just four innings and giving up 5 earned runs, putting an early strain on the Minnesota bullpen.

Pitching Matchups:

April 9: C.J. Wilson (0-0) vs. Nick Blackburn (0-0)

Wilson will finally make his Angels debut in Minnesota after the manager Mike Scioscia decided to slot him fourth in the rotation and keep him out of the opening series against Kansas City. Wilson comes over from Texas with just two years of starting experience after a career out of the bullpen, but those two years have been spectacular. The lefty sports five quality pitches (fastball, cutter, change-up, slider, curve) that he uses to constantly keep hitters off balance. Wilson posted an impressive 2.94 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP with 206 strikeouts while going 16-7 in 34 starts during 2011. A dominant spring hopefully is a sign that Wilson is ready to continue his success as a starter (though after Haren and Santana, spring success is no guarantee) in 2012. Wilson has shown a good ability to limit home runs during his career in hitter-friendly Arlington, so he should be helped by the more pitcher friendly confines of Target Field and the struggling Twins lineup.

Blackburn is a typical “innings eater” kind of pitcher. He isn’t going to blow hitters away with his stuff. He has a low strikeout per nine innings ratio for his career (4.33) and an average walk rate. Blackburn’s 2011 season was cut short after 26 starts due to a nerve injury in his forearm, but he’s come back strong this spring, raising his strikeout rate up over 6.00, which could be a significant improvement if it translates to the regular season. However, his mediocre velocity and tendency to give up home runs will probably continue his career as an average starting pitcher (he has never finished a season with an ERA lower than 4.05). If he can pitch to his strengths and induce ground balls from the Angels lineup, he may be able to limit the damage done.

April 11: Jered Weaver (1-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Carl Pavano (0-1, 5.14 ERA)

With a day off between games in this series, the Angels will be able to turn over the rotation without having to go their fifth starter, which they are still deciding on between Garrett Richards and Jerome Williams. That will bring Weaver back to the hill who will try and replicate his dominant Opening Day performance. In that game, Weaver went eight flawless innings, striking out 10 while giving up just four hits and no runs. He became just the third Angels pitcher to strike out 10 on Opening Day, joining Nolan Ryan and Andy Messersmith. He quickly picked up where he left off last season when he was the Cy Young runner-up, and will look to keep his hot streak going against the struggling bats of the Twins in the spacious confines of Target Field.

Pavano will head to the hill trying to improve on a less-than-stellar showing to open the season. In Baltimore, Pavano went seven innings (the most for Twins starters in Baltimore), giving up four runs but striking out only one batter and giving up a two-run home run in the first inning to put himself in an early hole. Part of the problem, it seemed, was that Pavano’s fastball was topping out in the mid to upper 80’s, down from his usual 89-mph average from last season. Pavano will need to figure out how to work with what he’s got quickly, or it will be a long season for the Twins’ ace.

April 12: Dan Haren (0-1, 8.44 ERA) vs. Francisco Liriano (0-1, 11.25 ERA)

Haren, who set himself apart last season as the co-ace of the Angels staff, could not quite figure out the Royals in his first start. Despite a 5:1 K:BB ratio, Haren lasted just 5.1 innings, giving up five runs in a loss. Haren allowed at least one baserunner in each of the six innings he came out for and gave up 11 hits and a pair of home runs that buried him. Look for the Angels number 2 to bounce back against Minnesota, fine tuning his location while continuing his high strikeouts to walks ratio.

Liriano’s last start against Baltimore could not have started any better. He struck out the side in the first inning, but couldn’t get much else to go right for him. He lasted just four innings, giving up six runs (five earned), while surrendering eight hits and walking two, ballooning his WHIP to 2.50. His challenge won’t get any easier as the Angels bring a lineup that, on paper, is more potent and dangerous than Baltimore. Liriano will have to find a quick fix to whatever happened to him between the first and second innings against the Orioles or it will be another short day for him.

Storylines to watch:

For the Angels, the big story will be the debut of their other high-priced free agent acquisition in C.J. Wilson. Angels fans are going to more anxious than they probably expected to be to see Wilson toe the rubber after Haren and Santana fell flat coming out of the gate. Will Wilson be worth the big price tag? Can he help to right the ship on what was supposed to be the deepest rotation in baseball? After his start, the questions for the Angels will undoubtedly move to their offense. Specifically, where is it? Sure, Morales and Mark Trumbo are hitting for great average, but the team has only scored 11 runs in three games, ranking them 22nd in baseball. Albert Pujols was supposed to turn this lineup into a run-scoring juggernaut, but he’s just 3-for-10 to start the year and Vernon Wells is the only Angel to hit a home run. If you thought Vernon Wells would be leading the team at any point this season in home runs or any statistical category, then you are obviously a time traveler from 2010. Welcome.

For the Twins, they’ll just be looking for signs of hope. Not hope for a division or a wild card, but hope that they aren’t going to be the worst team in baseball and lose 120 games. Nobody in the Twins organization should be happy after getting swept by the cellar-dwellars of the AL East in Baltimore, and they need something to rally around at this point so that their fan-base doesn’t check out by Tax Day. Justin Morneau back in the lineup and hitting .400 is nice, but the number of guys in that lineup who are still looking for their first hit is way too high for any Twins fan to get excited about.

Season implications:

The Angels were expecting to come out of the gate running, so sitting under .500 at any point, even this early, is not going to sit well. The team needs to find out where that dominant pitching rotation everyone was so excited about has gone to hide and where the offense that was supposed to put runs up in bushels got lost to. Losing the opening series was bad, but struggling in the second will likely set off Bostonian levels of panic in Orange County. For the Twins, they just hope to win a game, so they won’t get on Sportscenter as the “team who hasn’t won yet” feature. That’s never where you want to be.

The Hangout View:

The Angels have too much talent to lose back-to-back series, especially when they’re facing this Twins team. Minnesota’s starting pitching was overmatched facing Baltimore, so the Angels should be able to break loose against them and start scoring some runs. The Angels will dominate at least two of the three in this series and should sweep if the team plays to form.

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