Angels look to narrow gap in second half

BY foxsports • July 11, 2012

At the halfway point in their season, the Angels are no longer looking back at their stumbling start in April. Too many good things have happened since then.
 
For one, Mike Trout. But the 20-year-old wunderkind, who became a media darling at Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Kansas City, is only one reason the Angels reversed course after going 8-15 in the first month of the season.
 
The starting pitching jelled. The bullpen became reliable and unhittable, especially after the acquisition of Ernesto Frieri in early May. Albert Pujols finally started hitting like Albert Pujols.
 
There’s a lot to like about the Angels, despite the fact they haven’t been closer than 3½ games to American League West-leading Texas since the first week of the season. But the two teams still have 13 games left against each other, and it’s possible that the team that doesn’t win the West will still advance to the playoffs.
 
Here’s how the Angels size up as they head into their post-All-Star schedule.
 
FIRST HALF MVP — Mike Trout’s statistical impact has been recited ad nauseum since he was promoted from Triple-A Salt Lake on April 28, but let’s repeat it for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention: The Angels are 42-24 since his arrival, he leads the AL in hitting (.341) and stolen bases (26) and he’s scored 57 runs in 64 games. But here’s something you don’t hear too often: Trout energizes his teammates, including veterans such as Albert Pujols and Torii Hunter, who feed off his enthusiasm. Any player who lifts an entire team the way Trout does the Angels is an MVP. Runner-up: Mark Trumbo.
 
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER — When the Angels made the trade that sent two minor league players to the Padres for Ernesto Frieri, the initial response was, “Who?” Frieri was a talented pitcher, but he was little more than a middle-innings guy in San Diego, stuck behind relievers like Heath Bell, Mike Adams and Huston Street. General manager Jerry Dipoto knew what he was doing when he made the deal, telling anyone who would listen that Frieri “misses bats.” Frieri’s lively fastball has resulted in 26 1/3 scoreless innings, including 45 strikeouts and an opponents’ batting average of .096. With 11 saves, he’s the Angels’ de facto closer, although left-hander Scott Downs (8 saves, 0.30 ERA) can also be used to finish games.
 
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER — When a manager expresses concern that one of his starting pitchers has lost confidence in his stuff, it’s reason to worry. But that’s what Mike Scioscia said recently of Ervin Santana, who has been a regular in the Angels’ rotation since 2005. The right-hander hasn’t won in almost four weeks and was knocked out of his last start, July 4, against the Cleveland Indians, after allowing eight earned runs in 1 1/3 innings. Santana hasn’t been all bad: He was victimized by a lack of offensive support early and threw a one-hitter June 16 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. But he also has given up five or more earned runs eight times in 17 starts and has allowed 20 home runs. Scioscia so far has resisted suggestions to send Santana to the bullpen to sort out his troubles, but it’s an option he’ll have to consider if Santana doesn’t pitch better in the second half.
 
THE TURNING POINT — This one’s a no-brainer. The arrival of Trout infused a dull Angels offense with a dose of speed, inspiration and joy. Trout’s .397 on-base average ranks among the AL leaders, and his ability to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples has been a boon to No. 3 hitter Pujols, who is hitting .322 since May 15. With Hunter now firmly established as the No. 2 hitter between Trout and Pujols, the Angels have a strong top third in their hitting order.
 
KEY SERIES — The Angels will get their next best chance to close ground on first place when the Rangers come to Anaheim next weekend. But the two biggest series, which could well determine the division winner, come in September: three games at Angel Stadium on Sept. 18-20 and three more at Arlington on Sept. 28-30. In the meantime, the Angels open the second half with three on the road against the Yankees and four at Detroit.
 
BIGGEST SECOND-HALF QUESTION — The Angels’ strength has been their starting pitching, but suddenly four-fifths of their rotation is questionable. Dan Haren is on the disabled list with a stiff back, left-hander CJ Wilson is nursing a blister on the middle finger of his throwing hand, Santana remains unsteady and Jerome Williams is due off the DL following a severe asthma attack that caused him to faint after his last start. So we ask: Can the starting staff regain its balance and carry the Angels to the finish line?
 
If the answer is yes, the Angels are probably a lock to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2009. They’d just prefer to do it as the AL West winner.


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