CHICAGO – Only once in Mike Scioscia's seven seasons managing the Los Angeles Angels had he experienced a meltdown like the one he witnessed Sunday. His bullpen, usually the Angels' pillar, blew a six-run lead and lost the game on Jim Thome's 500th home run. It was grim, demoralizing and illuminating too, because it reinforced that the Angels, the team nobody wants to play because of their pitching, might have some chinks in it.
Really, it had been seven years since the Angels' bullpen had frittered away a lead of six runs. Sept. 1, 2000, in Chicago. Alan Levine and Shigetoshi Hasegawa spoil a good Scott Schoeneweis start. Ah, such halcyon days.
Since then, Scioscia and Angels general manager Bill Stoneman have built teams centered around pitching – particularly the bullpen – and have won three American League West titles and a World Series. Since 2000, the Angels have finished the season with a bullpen earned-run average no worse than seventh in the major leagues and four times have finished in the top two in the AL.
"We have a lot of confidence in these guys," Scioscia said after Chris Bootcheck, Scot Shields and Dustin Moseley – author of the pitch that Thome wrecked 426 feet – imploded. "I think there are certainly going be times in the bullpen when things will slip through the cracks. That's going to happen with every bullpen. These guys are good. A couple of guys have been out of sync here and there, but, as a group, we have confidence they will get the job done."
Such confidence is borne of the past more than the present. The Angels' bullpen ERA of 4.16 ranks 19th in baseball and eighth in the AL. In the second half, the figures are even more troublesome: a 4.49 ERA, and disconcerting individual numbers for Bootcheck (4.46), Shields (8.49) and closer Francisco Rodriguez (3.97).
Shields, so reliable, had been demoted recently from his setup role, and Justin Speier, the pitcher who inherited the high-leverage innings, has been bothered by a knee injury that will require a brace. With the Angels' starters struggling too – their post-break ERA is 4.28 – it's a wonder their 8½-game lead is baseball's biggest and their .584 winning percentage ranks second.
"You always hear about how we can't score," Angels catcher Jeff Mathis said. "Well, look at what we've done."
Indeed, it's as if the Angels flipped their philosophies midseason and turned from an offensively challenged, pitching-rich team into a hit-'em-'til-they-fall bunch of Yankees wannabes.
Actually, that the Angels rank fifth in baseball in runs is rather remarkable considering how anti-New York they really are. Their slugging percentage is 15th overall, and their 114 home runs are more than only three teams. Los Angeles scores with more guile than might.
"We're the type of offense that we've been grinders," Scioscia said. "The runs that we scored have been good. Considering the fact that we're almost last in home runs and our slugging percentage is not good, what we've been able to create with situational hitting and on the basepaths is the reason why offensively we've kept our heads above water."
The Angels do lead the AL in stolen bases and coped with Vladimir Guerrero's balky body tethering him to full-time DH status by using their depth. Chone Figgins, Robb Quinlan and Maicer Izturis' versatility helps, as does an outfield rotation – Garret Anderson, Juan Rivera, Reggie Willits, Gary Matthews Jr. – that allows for ample rest.
Though Los Angeles doesn't bring thunderous bats, it offers enough to complement Guerrero such that teams can't pitch around him. In the AL, the Angels are formidable enough to score runs, which puts the onus back on the pitching.
And that, in spite of their recent track record, is why the Angels do inspire such fear. They've beaten the Yankees in the postseason. They can go arm for arm with the Red Sox – at least in name. The top of their rotation, with John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar, stacks up with Cleveland's 1-2 punch of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. History, no matter its current relevance, does resonate plenty.
The Angels, bullpen-light and hitting-heavy, the team no one wants to play?
"I don't really care," Scioscia said. "I don't care if teams think we're the best thing since sliced bread or a fluke. What matters is how we think we're playing.
"And right now, it's pretty well."
Philadelphia: On the backside of the Phillies' woodshed job against the Mets, we must ask: What's the big deal about Curtis Granderson's 20-20-20-20 season – that's doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases – when Rollins might go 30-20-30-30? He's got the doubles and stolen bases and needs two more triples and three more home runs in the last two weeks to achieve it. Rollins is the heart of the Phillies and, with Chase Utley, helps comprise what is rapidly becoming one of the great keystone combinations of all-time.
Jake Peavy, SP, San Diego: Well, at least one award is decided. Peavy cinched the Cy Young on Sunday when he won his NL-leading 18th game, lowered his NL-leading ERA to 2.39 and bumped his NL-leading strikeout total to 225. Winning the pitching triple crown is good enough for the award even if the Padres don't make the playoffs – though Peavy seems bound to will them there, especially if the Phillies slip. up.
Detroit: Five wins and counting for the Tigers, though racking them up against Texas and Minnesota didn't take Herculean efforts. Sweeping Cleveland, on the other hand – that would be impressive. The promising part: During the streak, the Tigers' pitching has been tremendous, allowing only 11 runs. Rookie Jair Jurrjens, who has won two of the games, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning Sunday and has yielded just 13 hits in 25 1/3 innings.
New York Mets: Six errors. Six! In their eighth straight loss to Philadelphia – well-chronicled here by Marcus Hayes – the Mets played baseball that would embarrass Little Leaguers. Best team in the NL? Maybe so. But if the Phillies can sneak into the wild card and meet the Mets in the NL Championship Series, the Mets almost certainly wouldn't be favorites.
Jason Varitek, C, Boston: Yes, Varitek is the Red Sox's captain, and how he handles their pitching staff is impressive. Yet over the last 10 days, he has been a black hole in their lineup. Varitek is on an 0-for-18 jag, is 1 for his last 26 and in that stretch has seen his OPS drop nearly 30 points, a huge fall for this late in the season.
St. Louis: Record since the Rick Ankiel/HGH story popped: 1-10. Perhaps now all of the Cardinals zealots will realize that for the previous month before this was a bad team masquerading as a fringe contender. The Cardinals' hitting, pitching and fielding range somewhere between average and awful, and it's a testament that Tony La Russa has kept them in it. Though he has done so with questionable class.
SKEPTICAL HOMETOWN COLUMNIST OF THE WEEK
Lisa Olson, New York Daily News
She wasted no time taking a pair of pliers and a blow torch to the Mets following their weekend debacle against Philadelphia, leading the story with these two paragraphs:
"The Mets are playing some god-awful baseball. They're having trouble catching the ball, throwing it, pitching it, hitting it in key situations and beating it to bases. It's gnaw-your-arm-off-in-the-morning ugly, the sort of ugly that makes you wonder what in the world they must be thinking.
"That they can coast to October? Is this what's going through their pretty heads as they commit errors that would cause even the greenest of Little Leaguers to blush with shame?"
MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
OK, so Detroit at Cleveland for three games to kick off the week is a far better series for someone seeking great baseball. Kenny Rogers-Paul Byrd, Justin Verlander-Jake Westbrook, Nate Robertson-C.C. Sabathia – that's the stuff. What makes the Dodgers-Diamondbacks series so interesting, though, is San Diego sandwiched between them in the standings. Currently, the Dodgers sit 4½ games behind the Diamondbacks for the division lead and 2½ games behind the Padres for the wild-card lead. If Arizona struggles early in the week and gets swept by the Dodgers, the Padres they could lead the division. Or the wild card. Or maybe they could still be in third place.
The NL Central may have the tightest race in the standings, but for intrigue, it's not even close to the West.
PLAYOFF ODDS REPORT
Au revoir, St. Louis. Your mediocrity was not welcome in these parts. Colorado is gone, too, victim of its NL West brethren refusing to bow. Chicago and Milwaukee have flip-flopped from last week, and Philadelphia, in spite of its inspired showing at Shea Stadium, improved its chances only 10 percent. In the AL, it's status quo: Boston, Los Angeles, Cleveland and New York, with Detroit hanging on to its one-in-six chance.
(Last week's percentages in parentheses.)
Boston Red Sox: 99.98 percent (99.99 percent)
Los Angeles Angels: 99.97 percent (99.56 percent)
Cleveland Indians: 95.90 percent (97.31 percent)
New York Yankees*: 87.43 percent (85.52 percent)
Detroit Tigers: 16.66 percent (14.37 percent)
New York Mets: 97.78 percent (99.33 percent)
Arizona Diamondbacks: 85.62 percent (82.72 percent)
Chicago Cubs: 70.78 percent (35.88 percent)
San Diego Padres*: 65.26 percent (55.45 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies: 34.34 percent (24.08 percent)
Milwaukee Brewers: 29.34 percent (55.71 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 14.02 percent (23.03 percent)
* – Wild-card leader: The computer loves the Yankees, because the Tigers are only 2½ games behind New York and yet it gives Detroit just a 10 percent shot at the wild card. San Diego's 35 percent chance at the wild card inches past Philadelphia's 29 percent, and the first-place Diamondbacks still garner 21 percent of their total from wild-card possibilities.
"I'm pretty sure we'll see them again." – Yankees starter Roger Clemens, foretelling an ALCS showdown with Boston