ANAHEIM – On an otherwise ordinary Saturday in Southern California, Seattle Mariners closer J.J. Putz threw a few dozen pitches from the Angel Stadium mound to hitters wearing the same uniforms early in the afternoon. He said he felt wonderful.
The grounds crew filled the landing-foot hole and smoothed the dirt and brushed off the rubber.
And then Los Angeles Angels ace John Lackey went to the same mound, threw about the same number of pitches Putz threw, and said, yes, he was feeling good. Actually, he looked dominant, though that was mostly when Mike Scioscia was hitting.
Around that time, Erik Bedard, the Mariners' opening day starter, stood out in the bullpen and threw some fastballs and curveballs, well enough that the Mariners believe he could be pitching in games again within the week.
A couple of simulated games and a bullpen session amounted to significant progress from two aces and one of the American League's elite closers, another day toward September, and another inch toward what will become one of the intriguing division races in the game and, perhaps, a budding rivalry in the West.
While the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees generate the hype and the hysteria, while the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies lean particularly hard on the events of late last season, and while the Arizona Diamondbacks threaten to bury the National League West by June, the Angels and Mariners are healing and matching each other in arms, both in quality and depth.
Putz (right side) could be back by early next week and Bedard (hip) by late next week. Lackey (triceps) is scheduled for a minor league start next week and might return in early May. By mid-season the Angels could even get Kelvim Escobar (shoulder) back, not to mention Francisco Rodriguez's fastball, casting even more pitching into the top end of the AL West.
The Angels and Mariners haven't played a meaningful game since Oct. 2, 1995, at the end of a season the Angels played away an 11-game lead, and on the day Randy Johnson beat Mark Langston and made the Angels' collapse (and, OK, Mariners' comeback) permanent.
Since, they haven't finished a season closer than six games to each other in the standings. They did play a few mildly interesting games last August, when the Mariners chose a bad time to have their pitching go sideways, but the Angels swept in three blowouts and the Mariners were dead by the first week in September.
For the past six seasons, the West has belonged to the Angels or the Oakland A's, with the Mariners very occasional participants. This winter, however, saw the A's go to regroup mode and the Mariners go all in with the Bedard trade, and on Saturday the Angels and Mariners met for the fifth of 19 times this season. They'll play eight times after Sept. 11, at a time when the A's and Texas Rangers should be gone and the division open to the team with the most pitchers still standing.
More than six weeks ago, when the Arizona mornings still brought a chill, Mariners manager John McLaren amused the Angels when he observed an early spring-training game held "a regular-season feel to it." That's about as edgy as it's been, which isn't very edgy at all.
Given the Angels don't seem to be going anywhere and the Mariners aggressively rebuilt their pitching staff (Carlos Silva, along with Bedard) in the offseason, they should spend some Septembers together in the coming years, beginning with this one. What grows from that, given they aren't Amtrak close like the teams in the East, or historically connected like the game's more familiar rivalries, will depend on who shows up, and when.
"I mean, it's only fair to say we have to go through Anaheim," Putz said.
Beyond that, he said, "It's just two good baseball teams going at it."
They have shared injuries and so-so starts to the season. They have scored enough to prop up pitching staffs they expect to get healthy and effective, Saturday being one of the brighter days for both clubs in that regard. Even then, Mariners starters already are pitching deeper into games than they did last season, a promising development for a team hoping to ease the burden on its bullpen, particularly now that it's without George Sherrill.
"Well, we respect the Angels so much, and Mike Scioscia," McLaren said. "We know when we play them, they never let off. They're always coming after you, all the time."
The only thought directly related to the Angels, McLaren said, either on or off the field, was the Bedard acquisition.
"We felt like that was what we had to do in order to catch the Angels," he said.
Maybe they have. They'll have to get Bedard on the mound again to find out. And then they'll have another five months to find each other and see what develops.
In the Angels' clubhouse, Torii Hunter shrugged. He's five games in.
"I don't feel a rivalry," he said. "I just feel like they're enemies. I don't feel the rivalry that was White Sox-Twins, or even Brewers-Twins. I'll let you know in a couple months."