Through early-season struggles and bullpen issues, it was easy for the Los Angeles Angels to fly under the radar. But now as the Halos go into the All-Star Break just 1.5 games behind their AL West Division rivals in Oakland with the second-best record in baseball, the spotlight is theirs to steal from the A’s.
Bottom-dweller no more, the resurgent Angels (57-37) are back in the contender conversation. Here’s a look at how they got here.
The Angels showed little promise through the first series of the season. They were swept at home by the new-look Seattle Mariners and even lost hitting coach Don Baylor when he broke his leg throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day. The opening stretch continued to be marred by inconsistencies and bullpen blowups. As the opening month of the season wore on, it looked as though the AL West would be a race between the Mariners and the defending champion A’s.
Turning the Corner
A poor homestand in early May was the final time the Angels would struggle in the first half. Jered Weaver looked like his old self again, going 4-1 in the month of May, while the rotation was aided by a sudden boost in run production, scoring 122 runs in the second month of the season. An identity began to develop as the Halos began a habit of winning in comeback fashion and it would be further solidified later in the season.
However, pitching was somewhat shaky through May. Tyler Skaggs was lost to injury and Garrett Richards lost two straight, including an uncharacteristic start in Oakland late in the month. It also became clear that bullpen help would be needed. There was no lefty and no roles. Ernesto Frieri’s meltdowns became so prevalent that Joe Smith was named the closer. It was a glaring weakness and general manager Jerry Dipoto wasn’t about to stand idly by at a time when the club was starting to roll.
"We’ve put ourselves in a fight to be in the playoffs and we have to be true to that," DiPoto said. "You’ll make decisions on what you’ll focus on and our focus going into this trade deadline was to see how much we could help that bullpen."
The look of the bullpen slowly began to change in June. Frieri traded for former Pirates closer Jason Grilli, lefty Rich Hill was brought over from Boston and quickly released as the Angels brought acquired another southpaw in Joe Thatcher. Homegrown right-hander Mike Morin emerged as a reliable reliever, missing bats with his changeup, and Kevin Jepsen’s inconsistencies suddenly disappeared as he wracked up a string of scoreless innings. Each reliever’s role was clearly defined and it began to show, as the bullpen has owned a 1.68 ERA in the last 19 games.
In addition, the Angels also got hitting coach Don Baylor back late in June. In his first series back, they rewarded him with 20 runs, and their 478 total is currently tops in the league.
"I think his presence is definitely something that was missing," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "You could point to many things of maybe why we’ve stalled at times, but it’s tough to look at our offense and find anything wrong. Our guys have done a good job, from the base-running component to, as the season has gone on, the situational hitting, which has definitely improved."
The next few weeks will be key in determining the AL West race. After ending the first half of the season with a relatively easy schedule, the Angels will face the Mariners and the AL East and Central’s first-place teams in the Orioles and Tigers to begin the second half. However, all they’ll have the luxury of playing all three heavy-hitters at the Big A, where the Halos happen to own the best record in the league (32-15).
"If you look at the last 50 games, we’re playing at the level we need to play at," Scioscia said following Sunday’s win over the Texas Rangers. "The last 20 games have been a tremendous run. Hopefully, they’re poised well for holding up in a pennant race."