Sep 22, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher C.J. Wilson (33) walks off the field after being removed from the game during the first inning of the game against the Oakland Athletics at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
This isn’t the way Angels’ fans expected their beloved AL West champions to stroll into the postseason.
Matt Shoemaker left last Monday’s game with a rib-cage strain, then Josh Hamilton-who missed the previous 11games with a sore shoulder- skipped Wednesday’s division-winning after party with sharp, stabbing pains in his chest. The left fielder couldn’t breathe, let alone raise a celebratory toast.
Los Angeles completed a 5-5 homestand by dropping a three-game series to the lowly Texas Rangers before gifting Oakland an 8-4 win Monday night. The Halos have been outscored, outpitched, and flat-out owned by the American League’s bottom-dweller; a Rangers’ team they swept on three separate occasions. Unless Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs made freakish recoveries the pitching staff’s won’t be getting any better.
A thin starter rotation tapped the league’s most used relievers which, in turn, added to the bullpen’s season-high 4.55 ERA this month. Beyond Hamilton’s injury, or Shoemaker’s tentative comeback, or even the offense’s dearth of run support over the last week, are concerns over how this battered group of pitchers fares against the Baltimore’s and Detroit’s heading into October.
Blame the Yoenis Cespedes trade all you want, Oakland’s in the midst of a historic collapse. The last winning streak longer than two games coincided with pundits’ squabbling over Jon Lester, Sonny Gray, or Scott Kazmir starting the World Series. If- and that’s a big if– the A’s advance past the wild card round, they likely head south to Anaheim.
The Angels hold a 3.93 team ERA against the Bay Area team. Most runs came in May and June, well before Jason Grilli and Huston Street fortified an unstable bullpen. Fast forward two months and the defending division champs lose control of the AL West following four abhorrent games at Angel Stadium. The Halos averaged 4.5 runs per game in that stretch while allowing no more than three in a single game.
Does this make Oakland a favorable matchup? Not really. Even if Lester is used in a play-in game, the A’s have a championship-caliber rotation. The Angels have been limited to a .246 batting average and .298 on-base percentage in 17 games. Sean Doolittle’s gone from set-up man to ad-hoc closer in a relief core that seconds only Seattle’s in ERA.
For every Doolittle in their bullpen, the Mariners have two. Of relievers with 50 or more appearances, only one has an ERA above 2.70. Only two have WHIP’s above 1.20. Among the said group, only Charlie Furbush is anywhere near mediocre.
Somehow, someway, Fernando Rodney– the hat-tilting closer who wore out his welcome in Orange County- brought them together. Seattle leads the Majors in ERA and opponent batting average behind the showboating flamethrower. The staff as a whole limits the Halos to a .216 mark.
Solid relievers make the Mariners a dangerous long shot, but nothing more than that. The A’s will win out only to run into either Detroit or Kansas City. They’ll be one-and-done and the Halos will host one of two eclectic AL Central offenses.
Detroit and Kansas City top AL rankings in hits and batting average. Detroit has 150 times home runs, Kansas City 150 stolen bases. The Tigers rely on the three-headed monster of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and David Price. The Royals’ success rests with James Shields and a pitching staff with a 3.14 post All-Star break ERA.
On paper, Kansas City’s station-to-station approach worked to the Angels advantage. It didn’t during the 2014 season when Royals batters carry a .263/.327/.341 slash line in six meetings. The high-powered Tigers averaged three runs per in seven games and were either shut out or held to one run from July 25-27.
Scherzer and Shields would take the mound in a play-in game, leaving either a duo of Price and Verlander or a potpourri of Jason Vargas, Danny Duffy, Jeremy Guthrie, and rookie flamethrower Yordano Ventura. In that respect, the choice is clear.
Why take on three Cy Young winners when a burgeoning group of pitchers will do?
No one aside from Shields has playoff experience. The franchise hasn’t sniffed a playoff berth since 1985. Jered Weaver carries a career 2.21 ERA and stellar 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio into a potential ALDS opener with the Royals. The latter drops off significantly against other potential opponents. C.J. Wilson is undefeated in 17 appearances, going 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA. He’s allowed five runs over 10 innings in 2014 with four coming in one inning June 29 at Kaufmann Stadium.
Barring Shoemaker’s return, Wilson is the No. 2 starter. For better or worse.
It’s fruitless factoring Detroit’s struggles into the equation. This is essentially the same crew that nearly reached the fall classic last season made exorbitantly better with Price. It’s like Oakland with Lester, Gray, and Kazmir. Or the northwestern trio of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and James Paxton.
Behind the Angels’ veiled responses are hopes of a kindly matchup. One that won’t take advantage of a deflated rotation. One that give Mike Trout the stage to rightfully claim the AL MVP award. One that is beginning to look like Kansas City.