Will the real Angels team please stand up? A look back at an inconsistent 1st half

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The first half of the 2015 Los Angeles Angels season has been anything, but dull.  Despite many peaks and valleys the team finds themselves in first place as the second half of the season starts on Friday night against the Boston Red Sox.  Let’s look back on some of the best and worst things about the first half of the season. The 2015 Angels season started off slow as “King” Felix Hernandez handcuffed the Angels in the season opener despite a Mike Trout first inning homer.  The Angels came back to win the next two thanks a stellar first outing by C.J. Wilson as he two-hit the Mariners over 8 innings to get a 2-0 victory, and a solid outing by Matt Shoemaker to win the series with a 5-3 victory..  This was a great start for the lefty after a disappointing 2014 season and Shoemaker showed why he was one of the top rookie pitchers in 2014.  However, the joy was short-lived as the home opening series had a familiar ring to it as it ended up the same way the 2014 season ended: A 3-game sweep at the hands of the American League Champion Kansas City Royals.  Just like last season the first two games were tight affairs with the Royals winning 4-2 and 6-4.  Game three saw the Royals start strong and never look back winning 9-2 to drop the Angels to 2-4. The Angels muddled through the rest of April finishing the month with an 11-10 record.  One of the highlights of the month was the return of Garrett Richards to the mound for the first time since that fateful night in Boston on August 20th, 2014.  Richards pitched against the Astros losing 4-3 giving up three earned runs in 5 innings and took the, but it was still a successful debut for the right-hander.  The bad news for the Angels was catcher Chris Ianetta batted .093 with 0 HR’s and 1 RBI in the month of April. Newcomer Matt Joyce who was acquired for Kevin Jepsen in the off-season to provide some pop from the left-side also had 0 home runs and 5 RBI’s while batting .134.  This coupled with the departure of left fielder Josh Hamilton who was traded back to Texas on April 27th after having a drug relapse in the beginning of February and you had an offense that was severely struggling batting only .232 for the month.

May 5th, 2015 Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Garrett Richards (43) against the Seattle Mariners. Credit: Gary A.Vasquez- USA TODAY Sports

May started slow as the Angels dropped four in a row to dip back under .500, but then the Halos bounced back thanks to stellar starting pitching winning 10 of their next 14 games to go back over .500 at 20-18.  The Angels starters had 12 quality starts during this hot streak.  However, the Angels couldn’t stand prosperity as they dropped 5 of their next 6 games including losing three of four in Boston.  The team did finish the month strong sweeping the Tigers back to the Motor City in a four-game series to end the month with a 16-13 record and an overall record of 27-24 after 51 games. The Angels found themselves 3.5 games behind division leader the surprising Houston Astros .Albert Pujols started to heat up after batting only .208 in April with 3 home runs, “The Machine”  started to get his long ball swing back hitting 8 home runs in the month of May. Another positive note was second baseman Johnny Giavotella continue to solidify his spot as the team’s starting second baseman finishing May with a .271 average and he also showed a flair for the dramatic with two walk-off hits in May.

Johnny Giavotella has helped fill the void at second base left by the departure of Howie Kendrick in an off-season trade

As the Angels headed into June with a renewed hope it was quickly dashed as they lost five straight to Tampa Bay and the New York Yankees to fall back under .500 once again, at 28-29. The Yankees Series was particularly disappointing as the team was dominated falling behind early in the first two games as their two most reliable starters Jered Weaver and Garrett Richards were torched early and often.  Weaver gave up 7 runs in 5.2 innings as the Angels fell behind 8-1 before a furious 9th inning rally brought them within 1 at 8-7 which ended up be the final.  Garrett Richards then gave up 6 runs in game two and he could not even make it out of the first inning in an 8-2 setback.  The final game of the series started promising as Mike Trout and Pujols hit back-to-back home runs in the first inning to stake the Angels to their first lead of the series at 2-0.  C.J. Wilson seemed to be in command early only giving up 1 run in the first four innings, unfortunately as has been the case too many times Wilson has one bad inning and in the 5th inning the lefty gave up four runs, the big blow a Brett Gardner three-run homer to put the Yankees up 5-2 and their bullpen would do the rest completing the sweep with a 6-2 Yankees victory.  The Angels would again bounce back winning seven of their next 11 games thanks to Pujols and Trout as the pair continued to hit the long ball.  In the first of a three-game series against the A’s the Angels found themselves trailing 7-2 going into the 7th inning when the offense ignited scoring 8 runs which was capped by Pujols’ 20th homer of the season, a grand slam, that helped the Angels rally for a 12-7 victory.

The joy was short-lived as the Angels dropped the final two games of the series which saw Jered Weaver fall to 4-8 on the season landing on the disabled list with hip inflammation and the Angels sitting again at .500 with a record of 35-35.  The Angels entered a key 12-game stretch against three division rivals including the first place Houston Astros, as well a rematch with the Yankees.  In the first game of the series Pujols continued to bash the ball hitting two home runs to back another stellar outing by all-star lefty Hector Santiago who lowered his team-leading ERA (starters) to 2.68 with a brilliant six inning two-hit one run performance allowing the Angels to take a 3-1 lead into the 8th inning.  However, Joe Smith gave up the lead in the top of the eighth, but resurgent Erick Aybar came to the rescue singling to lead of the 8th and then getting to second on a sacrifice bunt, stealing third, and then scoring on a safety squeeze bunt by David Robertson to give the Angels a much-needed 4-3 win. After C.J. Wilson got roughed up for 7 runs in 3.1 innings in a 13-3 loss, the Angels turned to rookie Andrew Heaney for a shot in the arm in the series finale.  Heaney, who was called up to replace Weaver in the rotation, made his Angels debut one to remember giving up only one run in six innings leaving with the game tied at 1.  It remained that way until the bottom of the 13th inning when Aybar again ignited a winning rally singling to lead off the inning and coming around to score on a 2-out single by rookie Taylor Featherstone to give the Angels a 2-1 victory cutting the Astros lead in the division race to 4.5 games.

The Angels continued to get good pitching with three solid starts against Seattle in taking two of three games and winning back-to-back series for only the third time since May 1st. In the series finale Santiago was again dealing as he gave up only one run on three hits in 7 innings, but again got a no-decision as the Angels won in the bottom of the 10th on a wild pitch.  For Santiago it was his 9th start of the season where he gave up one run or less, but the lefty only was only 4-4 on the season with a 2.58 ERA after this outing.

Jun 28, 2015; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Hector Santiago (53) in the second inning of the game against the Seattle Mariners at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

To finish the month the Angels had a rematch against the Yankees, this time in the friendly confines of Angels Stadium and C.J. Wilson started the series off with a six inning one run performance backed by Trout’s 20th homer of the season and two stellar defensive plays by the reigning MVP as he twice robbed the Yankees Chris Young preserving the lead for Wilson and the Angels.  Trout also stole his first base since May 22nd in the game, which saw the Angels win their first game of the season against the Yankees.  Then it was Heaney’s turn to try to follow up his debut performance and the rookie didn’t disappoint as he held the Yankees to two hits in seven innings and only one run.  However going into the bottom of the 6th the Angels trailed 1-0 as the Yankees Ivan Nova was shutting out the Angels, but that would all change when Pujols came to the plate and unloaded his 24th homer of the season and 13th in the month of June to tie the score at 1.  Aybar followed with his 2nd homer of the season to give the Angels a 2-1 lead and Heaney and the bullpen would make it stand up in a 2-1 victory to clinch their third series victory in a row.  Pujols finished the month of June with a .303 batting average to go along with his 13 home runs and 26 RBI’s which helped him win the AL Player of the Month award for the first time as an Angel and the 7th time in his career.

Albert Pujols hits one of his 13 home runs in June against the Tampa Bay Rays, which helped him garner his first AL Player of the Month award.

Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After losing the series finale to the Yankees 3-1 on July 1st, the Angels had another blow to their already adversity-filled season as general manager Jerry DiPoto resigned from his position due to a Monday meeting with the Angels coaching staff and manager Mike Scioscia where things reportedly got heated according to Mike Digiovanna of the LA Times, http://www.latimes.com/sports/sportsnow/la-sp-sn-angels-jerry-dipoto-resigns-20150701-story.html.  leading to DiPoto’s decision to step down.  Former Angels’ GM Bill Stoneman, who was serving as a senior advisor assumed the GM position the following day on an interim basis. As if the team didn’t need any more distractions they had to travel to Texas to face the Rangers and former teammate Josh Hamilton for the first time since he was traded back in April.

However, the Angels proved to be up to the challenge and then some as they pummeled the Rangers winning all 3 games in convincing fashion 8-2, 13-0, and 12-6 to inch closer to the division leading Astros.  In the series it was a coming out party for Erick Aybar as the shortstop went 9 for 13 in the series to raise his batting average 22 points to .280.  C.J. Cron also had a big series going 8 for 14 driving in 8 runs and raising his average 40 points to .238. Kole Calhoun also went 7 for  14 with two home runs and 10 RBI’s to lead the charge. The offensive onslaught continued two days later in Colorado as the Angels got another strong outing by Heaney as the rookie pitched into the 8th inning allowing 2 runs in  7.1 innings.  He was backed by Pujols’ league-leading 26th homer and Trout’s 22nd blast in a 10-2 victory the 5th in a row for the Angels. The Angels won their 5th straight series by winning the next day 3-2 to go a season-high eight games over .500 at 46-38 and more importantly closing the gap in the AL West to 1.5 games behind the Astros.

The Angels split the final four games against Seattle thanks in large part to Trout who had a pair of two homer games in the two Angels victories in the series.  The 10-3 victory in the final game of the series allowed the Angels to claim the Western Division lead for the first time since April.  Heaney won for his 3rd time without a defeat, creating an interesting dilemma for Mike Scioscia  when Jered Weaver comes off the disabled list after the all-star break. Trout’s two blasts in the series finale tied him Pujols for the AL lead with 26 homers.  For their efforts Trout, Pujols, and Santiago were all named to the AL All-Star team with Trout and Pujols gaining starting nods.

Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols (5) is doused by center fielder Mike Trout (27) following a victory. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Hector Santiago (53) pitched well enough to be named to his first all-star team going 6-4 with a 2.33 ERA. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Trout made the most of his fourth all-star game going deep to lead off the game going 1 for 3 and scoring two runs which helped him become the first player in MLB history to win back-to-back All-Star Game MVP Awards.  Pujols lost in the semi-finals of the home run derby to the Dodgers Joc Pederson after defeating the Cubs Kris Bryant in the first round of the derby.  Pujols went 0 for 2 but drew a key walk off of the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw in the 5th inning keeping the American League rally alive which allowed for Rangers Prince Fielder to drive in Trout who reached on a fielder’s choice.  The Royals’ Lorenzo Cain then doubled in Pujols to give the AL a 3-1 lead that they would never relinquish. Santiago did not get a chance to pitch in the game.

With the all-star festivities behind and the second half ready to begin tonight in Anaheim with the first of a 4-game series with the Boston Red Sox the Angels hope they can keep the momentum they built by going 13-5 over the last three weeks of the first half.  If the Angels pitching staff can repeat their first half performance and the hitters can carry their new-found strokes the sky is the limit for the Angels in the second half. Here are 10 questions remain going into the 2nd half of the season 1. Do the Angels make a deal for a left-handed bat/lead off hitter? 2.  Do they try to bolster the pitching staff with another starter or an extra arm in the bullpen? 3.  Will Albert Pujols be able to keep up his torrid home run pace that has him slated to break the 40 home run barrier for the first time since 2010?  4. Will Hector Santiago and Andrew Heaney be able to continue their stellar pitching that has anchored the staff so far this season? 5. Will Heaney even be in the rotation when Jered Weaver returns from the DL next week?  6.  How effective will Weaver and Matt Shoemaker be in the 2nd half of the season?  7.  will Garrett Richards and C.J. Wilson continue their recent success down the stretch? 8.  Will the recent surge of C.J. Cron and Erick Aybar continue?  9. Will the bullpen continue to be a strength or has Scioscia overused Joe Smith and Huston Street which may cause them to breakdown?  10.  Will this be Mike Scioscia’s final season as the Angels manager, especially if the team fails to make the playoffs or makes a quick exit like 2014?  Stay tuned in the 2nd half and make sure you have plenty of Tums as it could be another topsy-turvy ride to the finish line…