Championships aren’t won in July. A hackneyed statement, sure, but one resonating with the Los Angeles Angels as the All-Star break comes to an end.
With September fast approaching, the Halos trail Oakland by 1 ½ games for both the AL West lead and Major League Baseball’s best overall record. It’s an upward shift from their 13 game deficit a year ago and, more importantly, keeps them in playoff contention for the first time since 2009.
Winning 63 percent of their remaining 68 games nearly guarantees a postseason berth, even if they can’t pass the surging A’s. A 43-25 gives the Angels their first 100 win seasons since 2008; both goals are attainable.
Still, October’s over two months away and no team has run away with the division. If players have learned anything from Septembers’ past it’s that a solid first half doesn’t always translate into the second. Ask the 2011 Red Sox, the 2009 Tigers, and yes, even the 1995 California Angels.
The Halos don’t need many changes going into late-July, but any success they garner will come from three key areas.
- Garrett Richards getting support from his starting rotation
Whatever All-Star voters didn’t see in Garrett Richards will be on full display into season’s second half.
The biggest snub in team history ranks second in wins (11), fourth in ERA (2.55) and quality starts (15), and sixth in WHIP (1.06) among AL starters. Above all, Richards holds a league low .196 opponent batting average.
Without Richards the Angels don’t have 57 wins, much less a chance at a division title. Starters wouldn’t carry a 3.81 ERA, it’s a far cry from their 4.30 mark last year. In essence, Richards makes the Angels a contender.
Somebody needs to back him up.
Jered Weaver’s resurgence is limited by a decrease in velocity. The control just isn’t there.
He is the staff’s leader but is on pace for career highs in walks and wild pitches. Weaver’s 36 base on balls allowed are nine short of the 2012 total and 30 behind his career-worst in 2009.
C.J. Wilson is usually dependable for 200-plus innings and an ERA in the mid 3.50’s. Maybe it’s the ankle injury that has him on the disabled list, but Wilson has yet to hit his stride.
Weaver and Wilson’s inconsistencies make Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker that much more important. They’ve made leaps and bounds over low expectations; Shoemaker an early season call-up for the ineffective Hector Santiago, and Skaggs narrowly making the Opening Day roster.
- Changes in the bullpen
Ernest Frieri was the closer Angels fans wanted.
A May 2012 trade brought the fiery right-hander to Anaheim in exchange for Alexi Amarista. He dominated through his first AL campaign posting a 2.32 ERA and 23 saves through 54 1/3 innings.
But hitters caught on. His 95-plus mph fastball wasn’t fooling anyone, and his work-in-progress changeup didn’t carry the desired break. Numerous blown saves left the Angels few options but to trade the once-promising Colombian.
Frieri’s June 27 trade to Pittsburgh left the door open for lifetime set-up man Joe Smith. It also made room someone to take Smith’s eight inning role.
The Angels knew trading for Grilli was risky. He’s a 2013 All-Star whose forearm injury and four blown saves this season led to his departure.
Aside from injuries, exchanging Frieri for Grilli was a wash. The Angels need someone more dependable backing Smith. Kevin Jepsen’s been solid-2.08 ERA with an 11.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio- as a seventh inning option, but he freezes when pressure mounts.
Joe Thatcher’s addition is welcomed relief to a right-hander-heavy bullpen. The sidearmer was 1-0 with a 2.63 ERA through 37 games with Arizona and has only allowed one hit in his short time with Los Angeles.
If anyone is going to make this relief core work it’s going to Thatcher. His unique delivery complements Jepsen’s heat and Smith’s more reserved delivery well.
Walk-off hit after walk-off hit, the legend of Mike Trout continues to grow.
The 22-year-old phenom capped a 7-6 comeback win over Houston with his 20th home run of the season. He rode a six-game hitting streak going into the All-Star break, going 10-for-26 with two homers and nine RBIs in the span.
For Angels fans, it’s becoming an expectation. Nobody, not even Albert Pujols, has matched Trout’s clutch hitting ability.
‘The Machine’ takes 20 home runs into the second half, by the far the most he’s had at this point since arriving in Anaheim. The plantar fascist is gone and Pujols is running at his most fluent since leaving St. Louis.
Josh Hamilton has tapered off from his hot start to 2014. A torn ligament in his thumb sidelined Hamilton through a majority of April and all of May. His batting average dropped .176 upon his return and not until recently has it climbed back up.
The left fielder went 7-for-17 against his former Rangers ballclub last weekend, scoring five runs.
What’s missing from Pujols, and Hamilton for that matter- is leadership; that game-changing, bottom of the ninth clutch hit Trout so often delivers.
The offense as a whole is clicking on all cylinders. Los Angeles leads the majors in runs scored, RBIs, and on-base percentage. A .269 batting average and .427 slugging percentage trail only Detroit and Colorado.
There’s really nothing going wrong for the offense. That, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, especially from the four and five-hole hitters.