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Angels add ace to their hand

ANAHEIM – There is a difference between pitching like an ace and being an ace, the separation coming in the areas of achievement and permanence, the breadth of a resume as significant as its length, the stature of the man holding the ball.

So while the Los Angeles Angels have been delighted with all they’ve gotten out of Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana for six weeks, it was not without consequence that they handed the ball to John Lackey on Wednesday night against the Chicago White Sox.

They’d cleared 6 ½ weeks without Lackey – or, for that matter, Kelvim Escobar – and when Lackey’s triceps had healed enough to have him back in their rotation, the Angels led the AL West by a half-game, a nice run considering they’d been outpitched by the Oakland A’s in nearly every way.

Three days after Rich Harden rejoined the A’s rotation, Lackey made his first start after finishing third in the 2007 AL Cy Young balloting, the result of 19 wins, 224 innings and a league-leading 3.01 ERA. Since Bartolo Colon blew up and faded away two years ago, Lackey has been the body-and-psyche leader of Angels pitchers; only Johan Santana and Roy Halladay have lower ERAs in the American League since 2005.

Manager Mike Scioscia had warmed Lackey’s spot with Dustin Moseley and Nick Adenhart eight times through the rotation and, while the Angels won four of those games, he did not get a single quality start. Adenhart’s day, the Angels are sure, will come. It’s just not today.

So, they leaned on Saunders, the young lefty, and he won six times in seven decisions. And they reworked Santana’s head and mechanics, harnessed his blistering stuff, and he won six times in seven decisions.

The off-season trade of shortstop Orlando Cabrera for right-hander Jon Garland turned serendipitous when neither Lackey nor Escobar was standing at the end of spring training. Garland, who faces his former White Sox on Thursday, has won four times. It was on this very Angel Stadium mound 2 ½ years ago when Garland beat Lackey in the American League championship series, and now they’ll go back-to-back all summer if the Angels have any luck at all.

Lackey pitched seven innings this night, allowed a run over two hours, then watched as the Angels’ bullpen and defense killed that work in just a few minutes. The bigger picture was Lackey and a fastball that topped out at 93 mph, a curveball he threw for strikes, a cutter that bore in on the bat handles of lefties. And the broader problem was the Angels’ bullpen, once the signature element of Angels’ teams, and now – outside of closer Francisco Rodriguez – one of the more flammable in the game.

The sound of a standing ovation for Lackey – he remains the guy who won Game 7 of the only World Series the franchise has ever seen – still echoed when Scot Shields’ 15th pitch of the eighth was smoked for a grand slam by Carlos Quentin.

And that was that. The White Sox would win, 6-1.

But the Angels became a bit stronger, from the moment Lackey took the ball in the first inning from third baseman Robb Quinlan to the moment he flung his right fist to celebrate the final out of the seventh, a 91-mph fastball that Nick Swisher flared into shallow center field with runners at second and third in a 1-1 game.

Escobar is throwing again, and if his shoulder is willing he might show up this summer to fill the gaps in the middle of the bullpen. For now, however, the season falls to the rotation, and the ace who has jumped aboard with the season already in full roll.

“I was definitely excited, yeah,” Lackey said. “It was nice to be back. It was a long road.”

He’d started to look ahead a couple weeks ago, when his fastball began to pop and his curveball began to find the mitt just so. The little spot above his right elbow that grabbed early in spring was reliable again. And, you know, an ace’s place is on the mound, in the season, pushing games into the late innings. Jose Contreras matched him for a night and then beat him, and that’ll happen, but Lackey believes there’s more fastball in his arm, greater command in his fingertips.

“Fastball’s not quite all the way back,” he said. “It’ll take a couple starts to get it all the way back. But, not a bad start.”

He threw 99 pitches and with the game in the balance considered walking Swisher and pitching to Juan Uribe. But, he got ahead with three breaking balls and then had just enough fastball left to carry him off the field.

“An ace,” he said, “means there’s a sense of confidence, a sense that we’ve got a chance, a pretty good chance to win when that guy’s on the mound.”

He’s their guy.

“I don’t know,” Lackey said, “we’ve got so many guys …”

He’s their guy.