Apr 28, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols (5) and catcher Hank Conger react after the game against the Cleveland Indians at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. The Angels defeated the Indians 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The first month of baseball is in the books and the Angels didn’t look half bad. Despite a traditionally shoddy bullpen, they sit 3 ½ behind division-leading Oakland and just half a game back of the second wild card spot.
Albert Pujols hit a milestone, the backend of the starting rotation over performed, and Mike Trout kept on being Mike Trout. As a result, the Halos crept over the .500 mark for the first time since Opening Day 2013 and head into May with six more wins-14 total- than the same time last year.
They lead the junior circuit in home runs (38) and triples (9), and trail only the White Sox in total bases (432) and RBIs (143). All of this with two-third of their outfield sidelined. The starting rotation- considered a weakness leaving spring training- is among the top three in wins, ERA, and innings pitched. A .214 opponent batting average against leads the majors.
There is a lot of baseball left to play- 135 games to be exact- and the Angels still have much to prove. Let’s take a look at what they’ve already shown us.
1. Pujols is healthy
If anyone needed proof they found it when Pujols challenged Torii Hunter’s arm running from first to third during a three-game stop in Detroit. Granted, Hunter doesn’t have the range he used to, but Pujols flowed through the bases with ease. He started at first base in all but four games when he spelled Raul Ibanez as designated hitter.
While we can’t say it’s the same Pujols that held at career high 9.4 WAR in 2009, remnants of that player are visible. Through Wednesday, only Jose Abreu had more home runs (10) and no other player with six or more homers struck out fewer times than Pujols (10). It’s unlikely he’ll keep up this pace, but with Trout batting No. 2 and Josh Hamilton’s imminent return Pujols won’t need to.
On April 22, Pujols became the first player in major league history to hit home runs 499 and 500 in the same game. He struggled in this past week’s series with Cleveland but is hitting .322 since becoming the 26th player in major league history to pass the storied marker.
Part of the reason the front office held on to Joe Blanton for so long was because of Richards’ and Skaggs’ inexperience. Not that they wouldn’t have released Blanton anyway, but the youngsters only held 14 wins entering 2014.
One month in and the duo combined for a 4-0 record with a 2.94 ERA.
Hector Santiago – 0-4 in five starts-hasn’t found his comfort zone and Jered Weaver is just starting to come around, making Richards and Skaggs that much more important. On some nights they’ve been simply spectacular.
There was question as to whether Skaggs would even make the Opening Day roster. On April 5, reassured Mike Scioscia that the right choice was made. Skaggs shut out Houston through eight innings, yielding one run and one walk. After getting roughed up in the next two outings, he settled down against Cleveland and Washington, limiting them to five earned runs through 14 innings.
Aside from a bump in the road against the A’s, Richards has pitched like an All-Star. He leads the team in ERA (2.53) and WHIP (1.00), and has allowed the fewest home runs among starters. Thrice he’s given up one run or less and only Oakland has more than three hits in a game against Richards. He is a welcomed relief for a bullpen that is just not starting to get on track.
3. Angels relievers can’t handle close games
Since Seattle swept the season’s opening three-game series, every loss has come by three runs or less. The Angels held lead entering the seventh inning in half of them. Simply put, relief continues to be a problem.
Blaming Ernesto Frieri is too easy. Although two blown saves and five home runs given up don’t help. Michael Kohn has walked 10 batters in 15 appearances, Yoslan Herrera’s walked seven batters in six innings, and Dane De La Rosa yielded two runs without getting an out in his sole outing. Overall, the Angels rank fourth-worst in ERA (4.37) among relievers.
However, there are bright spots. Joe Smith hasn’t been scored upon in 11 of his 12 appearances this year. Since taking over closing duties for Frieri last week, the right-hander successfully earned two saves. Since an abysmal opening set against the Mariners, Kevin Jepsen hasn’t allowed a run. He’s relegated to mop up duties most of the time but has filled in nicely as set-up man.