The Los Angeles Angels had been one of the most consistent franchises in baseball throughout the early 2000s. They won the World Series in 2002, the won the AL West five out of six years and there was hardly a time where they were out of the division race. But following their run to the 2009 AL Championship Series, something went wrong. The headlining acquisitions of C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols in 2012 and then Josh Hamilton in 2013 was supposed to turn the Halos into a formidable power for years to come. It never quite came to fruition until now. In a year where everything went wrong, the Angels did everything right. They clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2009 and were the first team in the league to do so. It wasn't easy, but here's how the best team in baseball won the West.
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Early in the season, it didn't look like much. And even following the All Star break the Angels struggled with the bats but they've been scoring runs at a higher pace than any other team in the league throughout most of the season. The Halos lead the league in runs score with 744 this season and in run differential (+158). This month, they have increased their production significantly, scoring seven or more runs in eight straight games, matching a club record set back in 1979. It starts at the top of the order with leadoff hitter Kole Calhoun acting as the catalyst. Mike Trout has put up record numbers in the No. 2 spot and Albert Pujols has had a resurgent year batting behind Trout.
The core four
There are only four players leftover from the 2009 campaign but those Jered Weaver, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Kevin Jepsen have been integral to both in the clubhouse and on the field. Ace Jered Weaver leads the AL with 17 wins, only his third season with 16 or more. He hasn’t gone as deep into games as he would have liked at times but the effect he has on his team when he's on the mound is immeasurable. "He's been anchoring us the whole year," said catcher Hank Conger. "Every time he takes the mound every fifth day you know there's that kind of stability and consistency… Just to know we have him every fifth day is huge." As a setup man, Jepsen was key in the bullpen turnaround and Kendrick and Aybar are best friends off the field and one of the league's top double play combos on it.
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Mike Trout's MVP campaign
At the All Star game, Derek Jeter passed the torch to Angels' outfielder Mike Trout as the new face of the game. Trout's numbers this year put him ahead of most in the AL MVP race: league-leading 107 RBI and 81 extra-base hits, 34 home runs, 101 runs scored and a more than a few dynamic leaping catches at the outfield wall. He's as humble as he is exciting. He looks like he's having more fun than anyone else in the yard and he's taken slumps, the attention and his giant new contract in stride. “He’s the same. And I think that’s a good sign,” Scioscia said. “You want guys to treat it just like it’s a spring training game. You want guys to go out there and play free, you wouldn’t play any different in a pennant race game than in a spring training game, you’ve got to get after it and play.”
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It was a breakout season for Garrett Richards. He pitched like an ace and was nearly All Star. He earned his 10th win right before the break and the Angels lobbied for him in the Final Vote campaign. The 26-year-old had only a few rough starts. He went 13-4 2.61 ERA. He was going deep into games and had the confidence to execute and command all the pitches in his arsenal. But disaster struck in August during a start in Boston. Going to cover first on what should have been a routine play, his cleat got stuck and his knee collapsed. His season was over and everyone said the Angels' season was as well. But a funny thing happened '' the Angels rallied back to win that win game. And an even funnier thing happened next '' the Halos kept winning.
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The emergence of Shoemaker
The beard kept getting longer and right-hander Matt Shoemaker kept getting wins. If it seems like he came out of nowhere, well, he might have. Shoemaker spent six seasons in the minor leagues before finally earning his callup last season. He quietly helped the Angels earn big wins. He made a little noise when he shutout the only offense more potent than his own, the Detroit Tigers, in July, out-dueling CY Young Award-winner Justin Verlander. The day after Richards went down, Shoemaker made a lot more noise when carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Now, the AL Rookie of the Month in August has rewarded the team that gave him a chance with 16 wins -- second in the AL behind Weaver. "He saved our season," Scioscia proclaimed earlier this week.
It's been a glaring weakness of the club throughout its down years. It was still the biggest area of concern as the team began to pick up steam in the spring. GM Jerry DiPoto went to work and completely overhauled the bullpen and it now bears almost no resemblance to the unit it was in May. Some pieces were in place: Jepsen, Joe Smith and Fernando Salas. But the roles were undefined. DiPoto shipped Ernesto Frieri's to Pittsburgh in exhchange for closer, Jason Grilli. Rookie Mike Morin caught fire and All-Star closer Huston Street came up from San Diego. Tyler Skaggs went down and long man Hector Santiago became a starter. When Richards went down, the Angels began rolling out their entire bullpen every five days. "I think what's had the biggest impact on our turnaround was the evolution of our bullpen," Scioscia said.